by Neil Connor, Agence France-Presse | 11/29/2012 6:36 PM
BEIJING – Beijing's claims to nearly all the South China Sea are embossed in its latest passports, based on what it calls long-established "historical facts" and what Chinese analysts say is Western imperial precedent.
Beijing has grown increasingly assertive in recent years in claiming islands and waters even without effective control of them -- in some cases hundreds of kilometers from the Chinese mainland and close to rival claimants' coasts.
The latest front on the simmering dispute is China's new passport, which shows a map of the country including almost all of the strategically significant sea, the site of key shipping routes and possibly significant petroleum reserves.
It is also claimed wholly or in part by Vietnam and the Philippines -- both of which have refused to stamp the Chinese travel documents -- Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
Washington described the passports as unhelpful, while Jakarta called them "counterproductive".
Officials in Beijing and state media justify the South China Sea claim by pointing to "ample historical facts and evidence" about the area, while remaining ambiguous on what these are.
The claims were formulated in 1947 by the then Nationalist Government in a map with a nine-section, U-shaped demarcation encompassing the Paracel Islands east of Vietnam, the Spratlys west of the Philippines, and other uninhabited features such as the Scarborough Shoal.
It is believed to be the first time the "nine-dash line" was printed on an official Chinese map.
To help support the claim, a group of 10 academics in China and Taiwan were last month tasked with providing "a legal explanation of the U-shape line" within a year, state media reported.
China hopes ancient maps and historical records will set the record straight, but Beijing's attempts to convince its rivals through academic research may prove fruitless, according to foreign analysts.
"China's claims are very dubious because you can make old maps say what you want them to say," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of the department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Cabestan told AFP that China's only control of any of the islands came via maritime skirmishes over the past 40 years.
China took over the Paracels in 1974 following a brief naval battle with South Vietnamese forces, and some of the Spratlys in 1988 following the Johnson South Reef Skirmish, which resulted in 70 Vietnamese deaths.
Beijing also gained control over Mischief Reef in the Spratlys in the mid-1990s, when it built structures on the island that it claimed were for its fishermen, prompting protests by the Philippines.
Manila backed down over the Mischief Reef dispute, but was more assertive earlier this year when its navy and coastguard were embroiled in an extended stand-off with Chinese patrol vessels at Scarborough Shoal.
The island is well within a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone which Manila claims under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the flare-up demonstrated China's confidence in claiming territory far from its shores.
Zhang Haiwen, deputy director of the China Institute for Marine Affairs, recently told state media that distance has "absolutely no basis in international law and judicial practice" -- using Britain's Channel Islands, less than 12 nautical miles from the French coast, as an example.
Jia Qingguo, professor at Peking University's School of International Studies, said China was merely following the example set by the West.
"The United States has Guam in Asia which is very far away from the US and the French have islands in the South Pacific, so it is nothing new," he told AFP.
"The geographical location of the island does not necessarily indicate to which country it belongs."
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