China's assertiveness towards territorial disputes with neighbours during its leadership transition has strayed from acceptable diplomatic practice, but is easily explained; tough talk and action are usual during contests for power. Not understandable, though, is the latest design of the nation's passport, which includes a map showing the contested South China Sea and land on the border with India as being Beijing's possessions. Unsurprisingly, so blatant a way of pushing the Chinese position has outraged affected governments, worsening already tense relations. Politically, it is a creative way of making a point, but diplomatically it can only be described as foolish.
This is not what we should expect of a rising China, a nation whose leaders have repeatedly pledged to co-operate and show understanding towards neighbours and rivals. While the map does not show the Diaoyu Islands, the subject of heated exchanges with Japan in recent months, it visibly marks the South China Sea - almost to Indonesian waters - as sovereign territory. Also shown in such a way are regions involved in the China-India border dispute and Taiwan. India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan have loudly protested.
The new passports had to be issued; China was obligated to meet overseas security requirements. Passports for ordinary citizens are issued by the Ministry of Public Security and those for officials by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But how closely they worked on the project is unknown. Given the uproar that has been created, it would seem that they had little communication. The nations most affected are refusing to give the map legitimacy by handling it normally at border crossings.
Incoming leaders have been left to pick up the pieces of a job poorly thought out. Many Chinese now hold passports that show their nation to be assertive. That is not the message that China wants or needs. Undue anxiety and tension have been created. Repairing the damage done can best be achieved by again revising the document to remove the map.