The Chinese continue to unite their neighbors against them.

The most recent controversy is a map featured in new PRC passports that poses particular problems for Manila, Hanoi, Taipei, and New Delhi. It encompasses vast swaths of territory that their countries also claim—most of it water (and the underlying resources) in the South China Sea.

The responses have been predictably alarmed. The question is what the U.S. is going to do about it.

First of all, the State Department hastens to clarify that processing the offending passports does not constitute endorsement of the claims. Okay. That’s good. It would be an overreaction to start rejecting entry to the U.S. for PRC citizens carrying the passport. Not even the offended nations are doing that.

But to the far more consequential point of the U.S. response to China’s symbolic assertion of its extralegal, unreasonable claims, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland in yesterday’s daily press briefing was tentative: “I would expect that we’ll probably have a conversation about the fact that this is considered difficult by some of the countries.” What? That’s it?

She couldn’t even bring herself to say exactly with whom that conversation would be. The Chinese, maybe? Could you go out on a limb? Presumably identifying the country that has caused the controversy would be too provocative.

In the end, Nuland had a good chuckle over reporters’ insistent questioning—their heightened concern attributed to the rest they had over the Thanksgiving holiday. In fairness, the video of the press conference (as opposed to the transcript) does show less humor than an official simply caught flat-footed and trying desperately not to make news. Still, a reporter’s question about what the U.S. response would be to Mexico featuring a map in its passport claiming Texas and New Mexico gets right the heart of the matter. For all this Administration’s emphasis on empathy, you would think they wouldn’t be so dismissive of the comparison.

This is a serious matter—much bigger than a passport processing issue. With the Administration caught unawares yesterday, let’s hope today it can muster the strength to call the Chinese out publicly for the storm they are brewing with their neighbors. America’s bid for continuing leadership in the region demands it.