Drills and Deployments Ahead of S. China Sea Ruling

A PLA Navy ship fires an air defense missile in a drill (courtesy Chinese state media)

By MarEx 2016-07-11 21:22:27

On Tuesday, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague will rule on the legal basis of Chinese and Philippine maritime claims in the South China Sea, and there has been considerable movement in the disputed waters in recent days.

On July 10, Chinese state media published images of a "routine combat drill" off the Paracel Islands, including live fire missile tests. The South China Morning Post described the naval drill as China's largest yet in the South China Sea, with assets from two other regions joining the PLA Navy's south fleet in a variety of sea, air and anti-submarine exercises.

On July 11, the Japanese Coast Guard vessel Tsugaru arrived in Manila to prepare for joint exercises with Philippine counterparts. Japan has had its own tense relations with China over disputed maritime claims, but it says that its recent coast guard cooperation has more to do with anti-piracy and maritime security operations than with geopolitics. The latest set, scheduled to begin on Wednesday, will also involve practice of airlift rescues.

On Friday, South Korea and the U.S. agreed to the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system, an anti-ballistic-missile defense capability which has long been opposed by China. South Korea and the United States view it as necessary to defend against an increasingly well-armed and assertive North Korean dictatorship, which responded to the news by threatening to "physically act."

China has described THAAD as destabilizing and a threat to regional security, and warned that it could be the start of a missile arms race. The deployment will not cover the South China Sea, but its announcement increases regional tension in advance of the court's ruling.  

China has repeatedly rejected the court's ability to review its "nine-dash line" claim to most of the South China Sea, which extends well beyond the typical 200 nm limit of an exclusive economic zone. The court is expected to rule against China, and in recent days Chinese diplomats have made strident efforts to denounce the ruling in advance, describing it as nothing more than a "piece of paper" and emphasizing that they will not comply with it. 

The recently elected president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has made conciliatory moves towards China in advance of the ruling, suggesting that the nation won't "flaunt" a decision in its favor and will move to negotiate over joint development of resources within the Philippines' EEZ. An editorial response by the Chinese state news outlet Xinhua said that China will always be open to bilateral talks, but that the "upcoming illegal arbitration ruling won't be the precondition or basis for any negotiation.”