Beijing braced Tuesday for an international tribunal’s ruling on the South China Sea, where it has expansive territorial claims, with all eyes watching for the Asian giant’s reaction on the ground or in the water.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague is set to release its final decision on the case, which was brought by the Philippines challenging China’s position.
In a months-long campaign Beijing has sought to discredit the UN panel, which it says has no jurisdiction in the multi-national dispute.
The China Daily newspaper, which is published by the government, topped its front page Tuesday with a picture of Woody Island in the Paracels, emblazoned: “Arbitration invalid”.
English-language headlines on the official Xinhua news agency included: “South China Sea arbitration abuses international law: Chinese scholar”, “Permanent Court of Arbitration must avoid being used for political purposes” and “The sea where Chinese fishermen live and die”.
China asserts sovereignty over almost all of the strategically vital waters in the face of rival claims from its Southeast Asian neighbours.
Its claims derive from a map drawn in the 1940s that show a dashed line stretching south from China and encircling almost all of the sea.
To bolster its position it has rapidly turned reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes, and the official Xinhua news agency said Monday it had built four lighthouses on reefs in the waters, with a fifth under construction.
It has held navy combat exercises between the Paracels and the southern Chinese island of Hainan in recent days.
US naval destroyers have been patrolling near the Chinese-claimed Scarborough Shoal and Spratly Islands, supported by aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, the US-based Navy Times reported.
Chinese state media have said Beijing will not take a “single step back” after the ruling, and President Xi Jinping said earlier this month that China would never compromise on sovereignty, adding: “We are not afraid of trouble.”
China has sought diplomatic support around the world, and foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said that its latest backers included Angola, Madagascar and Papua New Guinea, showing that “justice and righteousness always have popular support”.
“Who is upholding the sanctity of international law and who is breaking international law, I think people are all clear about that,” he said.
Manila lodged its suit against Beijing in 2013, saying China was in violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which both countries are signatories.
Beijing has boycotted the proceedings, saying the court has no jurisdiction over the issue, and that it will ignore the ruling.
The UN-backed PCA will not rule directly on sovereignty over the disputed rocks and reefs, and it has not said whether it will address China’s nine-dash line.
But one of the key issues is whether the land features in the area are islands capable of supporting human habitation — which under UNCLOS are entitled to territorial waters and an exclusive economic zone — rocks, which only have territorial waters, or low-tide elevations, which get neither.
If none of the outcrops are islands, then none of the claimants to them would gain sole rights to major expanses of the waters around them.
“The ruling can reduce the scope of the South China Sea disputes, but will not solve them,” said analysts Yanmei Xie and Tim Johnston of the International Crisis Group in a report.
The ruling was likely to “escalate the war of words”, they said, but added: “Escalation to military standoffs is not inevitable.”
China could choose to withdraw from UNCLOS, or begin building on Scarborough Shoal, which Washington would view as a provocation.
Beijing could also declare an air defence identification zone over the South China Sea, claiming the right to interrogate aircraft passing through the airspace.
Alternatively, it could move to reduce tensions.
Under new President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines has signalled it does not want to antagonise China. He has said he would not “taunt or flaunt” a favourable ruling and would seek a “soft landing” with China.
Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay told AFP on Friday the Philippines hoped to open direct talks with China on the dispute as soon as possible after the ruling.