Beijing raises rhetoric ahead of South China Sea ruling

Spanning three years, two hearings, and nearly 4,000 pages of evidence, the arbitration case at The Hague is complex.

Beijing // Beijing launched a deluge of denunciations on Tuesday ahead of a UN-backed tribunal’s ruling on the South China Sea, where it has expansive territorial claims.

Spanning three years, two hearings, and nearly 4,000 pages of evidence, the arbitration case at The Hague is complex.

In essence, China claims most of the sea, even waters approaching neighbouring countries, based on a vaguely defined “nine-dash” Chinese map dating back to the 1940s. The Philippines disputes this.

All eyes are on the Asian giant’s reaction as the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague was set to release its final decision on the case.

In a months-long campaign Beijing has sought to discredit the UN panel, which it says has no jurisdiction in the multinational dispute.

On Tuesday's front page of the China Daily newspaper, published by the government, was 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 South-east Asian neighbours.

To bolster its position it has rapidly turned reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.

It has held naval drills between the Paracels and the southern Chinese island of Hainan in recent days.

Manila lodged its suit against Beijing in 2013, charging that 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 — or 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.”

* Agence France-Presse