Ratcheting South China Sea Tensions, China To Hold Military Drills Ahead Of Court Ruling

With a ruling expected on July 12 by the International Court in the Hague on the territorial claims of the Paracels islands in the South China Sea, China announced that they will hold military drills in the disputed area.

On Sunday, China’s maritime safety administration said the drills would take place from July 5-11, and gave coordinates for the drills that cover an area from the east of China’s Hainan island down to and including the Paracels. This is an area also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. During the drill all non-military ships are prohibited from entering the region. The exercise will end just one day before a long awaited verdict on a South China Sea lawsuit against China.

Tensions have been rising ahead of the ruling by an arbitration court on the dispute between China and the Philippines over the South China Sea. Philippines began the suit in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013 after they reached an insurmountable impasse in their 17-year long negotiation with China. Philippines is challenging the validity of China’s claims in the South China Sea. China insist that the court has no jurisdiction and is boycotting the case. China claims that these and other islands in the South China Sea have been its territory since ancient times.

In a lengthy statement, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Philippines approach in bringing the lawsuit flouted international law.

“I again stress that the arbitration court has no jurisdiction in the case and on the relevant matter, and should not hold hearings or make a ruling,” he said.

He said: “On the issue of territory and disputes over maritime delineation, China does not accept any dispute resolution from a third party and does not accept any dispute resolution forced on China.”

China’s official Xinhua news agency said the court was a “law-abusing tribunal” that had “widely contested jurisdiction.” It said the case would only worsen the dispute.

“Manila fails to see that such an arbitration will only stir up more trouble in the South China Sea, which doesn’t serve the interests of the concerned parties in the least,” it said.

Tensions in the South China Sea have alarmed the United States which has key defense treaties with many allies in the region, and in a show of strength recently dispatched warships near some of the Chinese claimed reefs. The court is widely expect to rule against China and American officials have warned that Beijing could respond with even more island building or declaring an air defense zone around the disputed areas.

Over the last years, China has engaged in unprecedented construction of artificial islands and infrastructure on the reefs of the Paracels and other islands, preparing what appears to experts to be a base for its military, a harbor for ships, and even building a full-fledged air strip on Woody Island.

U.S. officials even believe that the area is protected by surface-to-air missile complexes that have been installed by China’s military.

The sea routes passing by the Paracels in the strategically important waters of the South China Sea are key to global trade of some $5 trillion annually.

Additionally, the shelf of the disputed islands in the South China Sea is also likely to hold considerable deposits of oil and other hydrocarbons.

After Beijing reclaimed several atolls and built up military installations on the group of disputed islands, Washington accused China of “acting aggressively” in the South China Sea. Likewise, China has accused the United States of “hyping” the issue and warned during the spring that court centered complaints about the South China Sea would snap back on its critics.

[Photo by AP Photo/Bullit Marquez]