The Chinese military will be executing military drills by the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea up to the day before a UN tribunal is to decide whether Beijing’s claims to nearly the entire sea are legitimate.
The drills will occur between July 5 and 11. On July 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague is scheduled to hand down a verdict in the case of Philippines vs. China. While the Philippines is the only country to resort to the tribunal at this time, China’s claims in the region also overlap Vietnam’s, Taiwan’s, Malaysia’s, and Brunei’s. They also threaten Indonesia’s.
The Chinese government has repeatedly asserted it will not abide by The Hague verdict regardless of outcome. Beijing has also ramped up a public relations push in its favor, promoting statements by politically allied nations in its defense. The leaders of most of these nations, however – Zimbabwe, Gambia, and Pakistan among them – have no vested interest in or special expertise of the South China Sea.
Both Vietnam and the Philippines claim the Paracel Islands, which the Chinese refer to as the Xisha Islands.
The People’s Daily, a Beijing propaganda arm, claims the drills are “meant for peacekeeping while showing that China is capable of defending its territorial sovereignty,” citing “analysts.” A Defense Ministry official told the outlet, however, that the exercises are “routine.”
“The timing of the exercises in the South China Sea is subtle, but it’s not necessary to link it with the arbitration, because the exercise is a routine activity that was planned a longtime ago,” one of the “analysts,” Liu Feng, told another Chinese state publication, the Global Times. He added that the economy demands that the rest of the world disregard these exercises and not “make trouble like the U.S. and Japan.”
The drills prohibit civilian watercraft from being present in the area at the time of the exercises. Vietnamese, Filipino, and other fishermen or sailors would thus be prohibited from transiting through what they believe to be their national waters by a foreign navy.
Xinhua, another Chinese state outlet, reports that this is not the only military exercise Beijing will complete in that period. Chinese forces will join with Russia’s National Guard for special “anti-terror exercises” between July 3 to July 9 in Russian territory.
The Chinese have repeatedly issued statements defying other claimants to the South China Sea. Most recently, in June, officials reiterated they “have no fear of trouble” in the region, implying they would use force against those they claim to be trespassers.
The U.S. government has rejected China’s claims to the region repeatedly and established a larger presence in the South China Sea, particularly in the Philippines, with which America enjoys strong military ties.
The Hague verdict is expected two weeks after the inauguration of the Philippines’ new president, Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte’s foreign secretary has already asserted that the government will issue a subdued response if they win their case. Duterte himself has vowed to reclaim the Philippine territories in the region by personally seizing them on a jet ski.