Google Inc.'s popular online mapping service has become entangled in a long-running territorial dispute between China and Taiwan.

Until recently, Google's maps described Taiwan as a "province of China." That sparked protests from Taiwan's government, which has considered its island an independent state since ending a civil war with China more than a half-century ago.

Shortly after Taiwan's foreign ministry formally complained, the China reference abruptly disappeared from Google's Taiwan map last week. That change has provoked cries of dismay in China and talk of a possible boycott of Google's service in that country, according to Chinese media.

The change doesn't reflect Google's political opinion on the dispute, according to company spokeswoman Debbie Frost. She said Google wanted to enlarge its map images to make them even easier for users to see, so it removed all text from the left corner of the Web page.

The long-planned switch also has removed the descriptive phrases that appeared alongside other countries on Google's maps.

Although initially disappointed with the change, the Chinese government now understands it's part of a product upgrade after discussing the issue with Google, a spokesman for China's San Francisco consulate (search) said Wednesday.

"We continue to think it's important to recognize Taiwan is part of China," Qiang Wang said.

China is strategically important to Google and its two biggest rivals, Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp., because the country represents the world's largest Internet audience outside the United States.

Some human rights and free-speech activists have criticized the U.S. technology companies for submitting to repressive Chinese laws to protect their business interests in the country.

The fight over how Google displays countries underscores the growing popularity of its mapping service, which was introduced earlier this year.

In August, Google's maps attracted 14.3 million unique U.S. visitors, ranking second behind America Online's better established Mapquest, which drew an audience of just under 39 million, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, another research firm.

Nielsen stopped tracking Yahoo's mapping service after the company fused the navigation tools with its local search features.