China has started conducting military drills in the South China Sea near contested islands ahead of an expected ruling on their ownership.
The show of force comes as the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), an intergovernmental organisation based in The Hague, said it would pass a long expected verdict over China’s claim to the waters on 12 July.
China said the military drills near the Paracel Islands, known as the Xisha Islands in China, were expected to end on 11 July.
China has claimed historic rights to large parts of the South China Sea, the area of the Pacific stretching from the Taiwan Strait down to Singapore.
The area is host to many conflicting territorial claims, being a major global shipping passage rich in resources, including offshore oil and gas.
The Philippines lodged a complaint with PCA in 2013 arguing China had interfered with its freedom of navigation and caused extensive environmental damage to reefs in its exclusive economic area.
The PCA is also expected to pass judgement on whether the contested archipelagos and artificial islands, some of which China has been building runways on, can be classified as islands or not.
Sovereignty aside, if these archipelagos are found to be rocks or reefs and not islands, it could adversely affect China’s territorial claims.
While the PCA has little power to enforce its rulings, a decision against China is likely to increase already high tensions in the area.
China has repeatedly stated it does not recognise PCA’s legitimacy in this instance. It has not participated at all in the arbitration process.
An anonymous source told the state-run China Daily that China’s response to the ruling would “fully depend on what kind of actions the Philippines and other countries will take based on the arbitration result”.
In a speech this week Chinese premier Li Keqiang said: “China will not impose its own will on others… meanwhile we will firmly safeguard China’s legitimate rights,” according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Although he did not mention the imminent PCA ruling, Li reaffirmed China’s commitment to resolving maritime disputes through “dialogue and negotiation with countries directly concerned… in line with international laws and on the basis of respecting historical facts.”
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