south china sea, more, kina.jpg
Photograph: Photo by Yosomono, used under CC BY

A potential flashpoint between China and the Philippines is the subject of a ruling expected this week thousands of miles away in the Netherlands.

China has declared its claim to a swathe of territory extending far into the South China Sea, sometimes referred to as the nine-dash line because of the way it is often marked on maps.

The resource-rich territory, which includes major shipping lanes, overlaps with competing claims by Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Brunei.

Beijing has been bolstering its claims by building installations, including landing strips and military facilities, on several shoals and islets in the region.

Manila has asked the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague to rule whether the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal are true islands, or mere reefs or shoals.

In the latter case, their status is determined by their location less than 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) from the Philippine coast, placing them in that country's Exclusive Economic Zone - if not in actual Philippine territory.

If they are true islands, then their proximity to the Philippines is moot, and does not constitute a defence against China's claim.

In China, Beijing has already said it will not recognize the findings of the tribunal.

Opinion pieces in state-run media have been defiant, with the Global Times calling for the military to prepare for a confrontation, and make the United States pay a "high price" if it weighs in with force.

The People's Daily said the US and Philippines were using the proceedings as "an opportunity to reinforce their portrayal of the country as an outcast from a rules-based international community."

"It is naive to expect China to swallow the bitter pill of humiliation" without taking action, it said. Beijing "has to plan for the worst."

Even without open confrontation, tensions will probably increase.

"Escalation is likely in several respects," Thomas Eder of Berlin's China Institute Merics told dpa.

China might build up new islands and push forward with exploitation of fisheries and gas fields, or even militarize some of the formations in the disputed areas, he said.

Beijing could also be expected to extend its Air Defence Identification Zone to cover the disputed maritime area, he said.

"China could also confront, ram or detain at sea more ships from other nations more frequently," he said.

The other interested parties with claims in the region will all be watching closely.

The US could in response also campaign against China through its strong diplomatic ties and alliances in the region, and perhaps send its navy through the area more often to underline the freedom of traffic, as it has been doing.

Neighbouring states could feel encouraged to follow the Philippines' example, if the tribunal views its claim favourably, and make claims of their own.

Either way, Eder said, the ruling next week will not end the conflict in the South China Sea. "If the crises escalates, a regional problem might well become a global one," he said.

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