South China Sea: Beijing begins military drills ahead of key territorial ruling

Destroyers and frigates understood to be taking part in exercises around Paracel Islands before international tribunal gives verdict on disputed seas

China has kicked off a week of military drills in the South China Sea ahead of a hotly anticipated and potentially destabilising court ruling on its territorial claims in the region.

CCTV, the country’s state broadcaster, said the manoeuvres were due to start at about 8am Beijing time on Tuesday.

At least two guided missile destroyers, the Shenyang and Ningbo, and one missile frigate, the Chaozhou, were reported to be among the vessels being deployed to the region, where China has overlapping territorial claims with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

The exercises, inside a 100,000 square kilometre zone around the disputed Paracel Islands, come ahead of a ruling next week by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague over a long-standing territorial dispute between the Philippines and China.

On 12 July, more than three years after the Philippines originally brought the case, the court is due to rule on whether Manila has the right to exploit waters claimed by both countries in the South China Sea.

Experts say the landmark ruling could have major implications for China’s wider claims in the region and Beijing has refused to recognise the court’s authority, rejecting the case as a “farce”.

China claims sovereignty over huge swaths of the resource-rich South China Sea, within what it calls the “nine-dash line”, but next week’s ruling may call into question the legal legitimacy of those claims.

“If the court was to dismiss the nine-dash line claim full stop that would be incredibly damaging to China’s claims,” said Ashley Townshend, a scholar at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre. “It would be a big blow to what China considers to be its sovereign space.”


In an editorial timed to coincide with the start of seven days of military drills, the Global Times, a Communist party tabloid, claimed the tribunal was part of a US ploy “to impose more pressure on China, causing more tensions in the South China Sea”.

“China is a peace-loving country and deals with foreign relations with discretion, but it won’t flinch if the US and its small clique keep encroaching on its interests on its doorstep,” the newspaper said.

The China Daily, Beijing’s English language mouthpiece, said those in the US who saw the tribunal as a way of invalidating its territorial claims had “underestimated China’s determination to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

“The days have long passed when the country was seen as the ‘sick man of East Asia’ whose fate was at the mercy of a few western powers,” it said in an editorial.

China often conducts military drills in the South China Sea and academics interviewed by China’s party-controlled media claimed the drills were a “normal naval activity to methodically maintain regional stability, which is not connected with specific events or targeted at certain countries”.

Townshend said the exercises were partly a response to recent US manoeuvres in the region and partly an attempt to show China’s resolve to the world ahead of next Tuesday’s ruling. But there was also a strong domestic component to the war games.

“This show of force is about reassuring domestic audiences and demonstrating actions to meet the strong words that Chinese officials and Xi Jinping have come out saying [about the tribunal],” he said.

“The Chinese population is going to be looking to see that the government is actually not buckling under international pressure and is continuing to do what it said it would do, which is exercise presence and be in the South China Sea independent of what any international tribunal or external party says.”

Vietnam on Monday urged China to scrap the latest drills, with foreign ministry spokesperson Le Hai Binh claiming the exercises were against international law.

“Vietnam strongly objects to the exercises and demands that China respect Vietnam’s sovereignty and behave in a responsible manner,” he added, according to the Vietnam News Agency.

In a recent interview Andrew Nathan, a Columbia University expert in Chinese politics and foreign policy, said a rising and increasingly confident China would be deaf to such criticism.

“I think they’re not too worried about complaints from the neighbours,” Nathan said. “Certainly as one reaches the moment in a multi-decade programme where one is going to seize the moment and change the balance of power you are very much expecting pushback from all of the neighbours.”

Critics at home and abroad argue that Beijing’s increasingly assertive stances on issues such as South China Sea have damaged China’s standing in the world and are alienating potential allies.

“My read on that is that the Chinese strategists feel like that is fine,” Nathan said. “‘Line up against us. We expected that. But it doesn’t make any goddam difference if you line up against us because, as the foreign minister said: ‘We are big.’

“So you can complain and mutter and sue us in the Law of the Sea tribunal … and it doesn’t add up to a whole hell of a lot because we are big, we are here, and our economy is growing.”


Tom Phillips in Beijing

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Beijing defiant ahead of court ruling on its claims in South China Sea
Global Times, a nationalist Communist party tabloid, warns ‘provocateurs are doomed to fail’ in hours before verdict is handed down

Tom Phillips in Beijing

12, Jul, 2016 @6:32 AM

Article image
Beijing rejects tribunal's ruling in South China Sea case
Xi Jinping says China’s ‘territorial sovereignty and marine rights’ in the seas will not be affected

Tom Phillips in Beijing, Oliver Holmes in Bangkok and Owen Bowcott

12, Jul, 2016 @5:21 PM

Article image
South China Sea: state media claims Beijing is the victim as court ruling nears
China’s People’s Daily accuses Washington of using the case over the disputed islands to stifle China’s rise and preserve own its ‘regional hegemony’

Tom Phillips in Beijing

11, Jul, 2016 @5:17 AM

Article image
China attacks international court after South China Sea ruling
Beijing warns of possible military escalation after UN tribunal overwhelmingly rejects its claims to ownership of strategic waterway

Tom Phillips in Beijing

13, Jul, 2016 @6:39 AM

Article image
South China Sea dispute: what you need to know about The Hague court ruling
Beijing asserts sweeping ownership in these contested waters. Now an international tribunal has ruled in favour of the Philippines in case over territorial control

Oliver Holmes in Bangkok and Tom Phillips in Beijing

12, Jul, 2016 @9:52 AM

Article image
US seals crucial military deal with the Philippines close to China flashpoints
Deal expands Washington’s access to military bases near Taiwan and the South China Sea

Rebecca Ratcliffe South-east Asia correspondent, and Helen Davidson in Taipei

02, Feb, 2023 @6:51 AM

Article image
Photos show Beijing’s militarisation of South China Sea in new detail
China accused of building ‘island fortresses’ as Philippine newspaper obtains aerial images

Tom Phillips in Beijing

06, Feb, 2018 @10:09 AM

Article image
Beijing warns US to stay out of South China Sea dispute
Obama hits back by telling Asian leaders China must abide by the international tribunal ruling that its claims to the area have no legal basis

Martin Farrer and agencies

08, Sep, 2016 @6:20 AM

Article image
South China Sea ruling: America has a crucial role to play | Michael H Fuchs
The United States must encourage China and the Philippines to refrain from actions that could spike tensions – and help resolve the dispute

Michael H Fuchs

13, Jul, 2016 @11:00 AM

Article image
Vietnam holds live-fire exercises as territorial dispute with China escalates

Beijing warns other regional powers not to become involved in row over South China Sea islands and surrounding waters

Tania Branigan in Beijing and agencies

14, Jun, 2011 @3:16 PM