This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Police in Vietnam will begin fining drivers for using an older version of license plates showing a map of the country that does not include the disputed Spratly and Paracel island chains, local news reported Friday.
In a complex, overlapping territorial dispute in the South China sea, Vietnam, China and Taiwan claim the Paracels, while the Spratlys are also claimed by three other countries.
The seemingly insignificant sandbars and sea rocks cover a territory sought for rich fishing grounds and potential petroleum deposits.
The older license plates show the map of Vietnam without depicting either the Spratlys or the Paracels. They were replaced by newer plates, of which several designs exist, that render the island chains as either blocks or stars.
RFA could not confirm when exactly the government stopped issuing the older plates, or when it started issuing any of the newer designs.
VietnamNet on Friday quoted an official of the traffic police department, who said that using the old plates is now a finable offense under Vietnamese law.
The police warning comes on the heels of the Communications and Information Ministry’s recent dispatch to the Ministries of the Police, Trade and Industry, and Natural Resources and Environment, instructing them to correct instances in their jurisdictions where maps of Vietnam that do not depict the disputed territories are used.
According to the dispatch, the use of license plates that do not include the Spratlys and Paracels might cause “erroneous” opinions about sovereignty over the island chains and their surrounding seas and seabeds, which could leave Vietnam at a disadvantage in legal battles over the territories.
Prior to the ministry’s dispatch, the omission of the disputed island chains from the older plates had been a hot topic on Facebook and in state media.
Though Vietnam continues to assert its sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, Vietnamese police routinely break up anti-China protests each year on the anniversaries of Chinese takeovers of the island groups.
Demonstrators have been detained by Vietnam, a one-party communist state, for asserting Vietnamese sovereignty over the territories during protests.
China’s military currently controls the Paracels, with China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Malaysia occupying different parts of the Spratlys and Brunei claiming part of it inside its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).