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Beijing Tries To Whip Up Support For Its South China Sea Claims

China is undertaking a diplomatic and public relations blitz to rally support for its sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea ahead of a decision by an international court that may rule against Beijing.

Beijing says it owns the islands, rocks and shoals — and the waters around them — in a giant expanse of the South China Sea, overlapping with claims made by countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. In the past month, China has said that countries like Cambodia and Russia have taken positions supportive of its stance.

In a bid to make its control of the area a fait accompli, China in the past two years has built seven artificial islands in the South China Sea, equipped with airstrips, radars and ports and staffed by thousands of workers and soldiers.

Now, concern is mounting that China may start building an eighth island on Scarborough Shoal, a reef much closer to Manila and to bases in the Philippines used by the United States, potentially setting off a diplomatic crisis and a military standoff between China and the United States, the world’s two biggest economies. China wrested control of the shoal, used by Filipino fishermen, in 2012. In early 2013, the Philippines filed suit at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, challenging China’s territorial claims to the sea. They are demarcated on Chinese maps by a so-called nine-dash line, which the Philippines says is excessive and conflicts with its own claims.

A ruling by the court, which may favor the Philippines, is expected in the coming weeks. China has refused to take part in the proceedings, saying the international agreement on which the Philippines is basing its claim, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, does not apply in this case.

China has been taking its case to the international news media, with a senior diplomat holding a news conference on Thursday in Beijing. On Friday, Chinese diplomats spoke to reporters in Hong Kong. Officials at both venues sharply criticized the action by the Philippines and the decision by the international court to take the case.

“By unilaterally initiating the arbitration, the Philippine side is imposing its own will on others,” Song Ru’an, deputy commissioner for the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong, told reporters on Friday. “It is only natural for China not to participate in such arbitration that has become tainted and gone astray. And China will not accept or recognize the award of the arbitration whatever it might be.”

In its campaign to win international support for its position, China has focused mostly on small nations that depend on Chinese trade or aid, with limited success. On April 13, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported that Fiji had declared its support for China’s position, which holds that any disputes countries have over the sea should be handled bilaterally. Fiji’s Information Ministry quickly replied, saying the Pacific island nation did not back China’s stance and took no sides in the matter, the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation reported.

China also claims the support of Brunei, Cambodia and landlocked Laos. In April, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, meeting his counterpart in Beijing, said that outside nations should not interfere in the South China Sea, a reference to the United States. The United States has been challenging what it considers China’s excessive maritime claims by sailing warships close to China’s artificial islands, most recently on Tuesday, when a guided missile destroyer passed within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef.

Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia, said the court might issue a ruling that did not address the legality of China’s nine-dash line, which was first put forth in the years before the Chinese Communist Party’s victory in 1949. The court may rule that the shoals and outcroppings claimed by China are not islands, meaning that China cannot make the case that it should have exclusive economic zones around them, limiting its jurisdiction in the waters of the South China Sea, he said.

“It is likely to go predominantly the Philippines’ way,” Mr. Graham said by telephone. “That explains why China is rolling out in a very communist way this propaganda barrage.”

By MICHAEL FORSYTHE May 13, 2016 on the New York Times

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