BEIJING - China has unveiled a new official map of the country, giving greater play to its claims on the South China Sea and making the disputed area and its numerous islets and reefs appear more like its national territory.
Previous maps published by the government already include Beijing's claims to most of the South China Sea, but the disputed zone was normally displayed in a tiny box at the bottom of the typically horizontal map.
The new, longer map, however, dispenses with the box, and shows continental China along with its self-declared sea boundary in the South China Sea - stretching right down to the coasts of Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
"The islands of the South China Sea on the traditional map of China are shown in a cut-away box, and readers cannot fully, directly know the full map of China," the ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily said on its website.
Old maps make the South China Sea's islands appear more like an appendage rather than an integral part of the country, which the new map makes "obvious with a single glance", the report added.
"This vertical map of China has important meaning for promoting citizens' better understanding of ... maintaining (our) maritime rights and territorial integrity," an unnamed official with the map's publishers told the newspaper.
China's foreign ministry said people should not read too much into the issuing of the new map. "The goal is to serve the Chinese public. As for the intentions, I think there is no need to make too much of any association here," ministry spokesman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing. "China's position on the South China Sea issue is consistent and extremely clear. Our stance has not changed."
Beijing claims about 90 per cent of the South China Sea, but parts of the potentially energy-rich waters are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Philippine foreign ministry spokesman Charles Jose yesterday said the new map showed China's "unreasonably expansive claims" that, he added, contravened international law.
"And it is precisely such ambitious expansionism that is causing tension in the South China Sea."
Tensions are particularly high between Beijing and Manila lately, after Philippine President Benigno Aquino on Tuesday voiced his support for Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe's more assertive military policy during a working visit.
Mr Abe made it clear that he wanted an early agreement with his ruling party's dovish junior partner to ease constitutional curbs that have kept Japan's military from fighting abroad and defending its allies since World War II.
Mr Aquino welcomed the stance, saying "nations of goodwill can only benefit if the Japanese government is empowered to assist others".
Like the Philippines and other claimants, Japan is also locked in territorial disputes with China, albeit in the East China Sea.
China yesterday accused Mr Aquino of complicating an already difficult situation. "We think that the relevant country should earnestly show its sincerity, meet China halfway, rather than creating tensions and rivalry and adding new, complicating factors to the situation in the region," said the foreign ministry spokesman Ms Hua.
China's relations with Vietnam also plunged following its positioning of an oil rig in waters claimed by both Beijing and Hanoi last month. At least two Chinese workers died and dozens were injured when anti-China protests broke out in several industrial parks in Vietnam.
Vietnam yesterday made an initial compensation of more than US$7 million (S$8.8 million) to nearly 140 businesses which suffered substantial damage during the anti-China riots.
Professor Lee Yunglung of the South China Sea Institute of Xiamen University said the new map could be China's way to test its neighbours' reactions. "The fact that the map is published by a local publication house enables Beijing to dodge the potential strong resistance from its neighbours," he was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.
But if there is no severe backlash, China could then use the map to consolidate its claims, and show that its land and water territories carry equal weight, he added.