China has hit out at the United States on the eve of a long-awaited court decision that is expected to call into question Beijing’s extensive and controversial territorial claims in the South China Sea.
In a front page editorial, the Communist party’s official mouthpiece preemptively dismissed the “illegitimate” work of an international tribunal that is this week set to rule on an acrimonious maritime dispute between China and the Philippines.
The People’s Daily accused Washington of using the case to stifle China’s rise and preserve its own “regional hegemony”.
“Some people hope to smear China by inverting things and stirring up trouble, so as to portray the real victims as the illegal ones,” the newspaper argued, adding: “Obviously, on the issue of the South China Sea, China is absolutely not the perpetrator but the victim.”
Monday’s editorial represented the crescendo of a relentless propaganda campaign that Beijing has been promoting in the lead up this week’s ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague.
On Tuesday the court is due to deliver its verdict on a case that was brought against China by the Philippines in 2013 and in which Beijing has refused to participate.
Among Manila’s demands are that the court reject China’s territorial claims within a so-called ‘nine-dash line’ which demarcates about 90% of the South China Sea.
That would deal a severe blow to China’s claims in the resource-rich region - through which $4.5tn (£3.4tn) of trade passes each year - where Beijing has conflicting claims with countries such as Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The court’s decision, which is widely expected to favour Manila, is likely to spark anger and protest in Beijing, with the intensity of the reaction likely to be determined by the strength and detail of its ruling.
“Beijing will not step back, and will not allow what it sees as a wolf-pack scheme to succeed,” the English-language China Daily warned on Monday, accusing the United States of declaring “lawfare” on Beijing by throwing its weight behind the Philippines’ cause.
“[Win] or lose, the ruling makes no difference to Beijing because it deems the arbitration illegitimate as the court has no jurisdiction,” the newspaper added.
Ashley Townshend, a scholar at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, said the ruling would provide a “critical test” of the strength of international law in the South China Sea and an indication of Beijing’s willingness to abide by global rules.
“Beijing will respond with vitriolic language to any criticism by the court and might step up its military footprint on the artificial islands it controls as an act of defiance. But it is unlikely to lash out in militarily dangerous ways,” he predicted.
Instead, Townshend said Beijing was most likely to respond with “a temporary show of force”.
However, other experts argue a more substantial response is possible, including declaring an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea or an acceleration of China’s construction of artificial islands in the region.
Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Beijing had whipped up so much nationalism over the issue at home that it had little choice but to respond in some way to an unfavourable ruling.
“The leadership does not want to have to do anything that might make it appear weak to its people,” she said.
Additional reporting by Christy Yao