BEIJING—China’s military plans exercises in the disputed South China Sea this week, adding to tensions ahead of an international tribunal’s ruling that is expected to challenge Beijing’s maritime claims in the area.
The drills, announced in a brief online statement Sunday, are scheduled to stretch over seven days starting Tuesday and ending July 11, the day before the United Nations-backed tribunal in The Hague is expected to issue its ruling. Beijing has repeatedly said it will ignore the verdict despite pressure from the U.S. and its allies to comply.
U.S. Navy ships have conducted exercises around the South China Sea in recent weeks and on Friday the Navy said an aircraft-carrier strike group was operating in the sea, without saying precisely where or how long it would stay. U.S. officials have warned that Beijing could respond to the ruling by expanding its recent island-building or declaring an air-defense zone in the area.
China’s Maritime Safety Administration, in announcing the exercises, gave geographic coordinates for the drills in an area running east of China’s Hainan Island down to and including the Paracel Islands.
“Entering prohibited,” it said in English. The Paracels are controlled by China but also claimed by Vietnam, where government officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Chinese defense ministry officials couldn’t be reached for comment Sunday. In a speech on Friday to mark the 95th anniversary of the Communist Party’s founding, President Xi Jinping said that China would never compromise on its sovereignty and was “not afraid of trouble.”
China normally issues public notices in advance of military exercises, which it conducts regularly in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
The timing and location of these latest drills seem particularly provocative. They coincide with U.S.-led joint naval exercises off Hawaii which Chinese navy ships are joining for the second time as part of efforts to improve military relations.
The tribunal in The Hague is widely expected to rule against China on several counts in a case brought by the Philippines in 2013 challenging the legality of Beijing’s claims to almost all of the South China Sea.
China’s claims overlap with those of Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, as well as those of Vietnam and the Philippines—a U.S. treaty ally. Analysts have said that among Beijing’s concerns are that the tribunal’s verdict will trigger copycat suits.
One possible Chinese response, U.S. officials say, would be to declare an air-defense identification zone in the area, like the one Beijing established over the East China Sea in 2013, which requires all foreign aircraft to identify themselves before entering.
Another is for China, which has already built seven artificial islands in the South China Sea in the past two years, to begin land reclamation at another disputed outcrop, known as the Scarborough Shoal, which Beijing seized control of from the Philippines in 2012.
China says it has the right to do both, but hasn’t declared any specific plans for either. U.S. officials have warned that either move could force Washington to take action, without specifying what that response might be.
Last month, the U.S. sent two aircraft carriers to take part in joint naval drills with India and Japan in the Philippine Sea. One of them, the USS Ronald Reagan, and its strike group then moved into the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy said on Friday.
“Our forward-deployed ships are operating here to maintain the seas open for all to use,” it quoted Rear Admiral John D. Alexander, commander of Task Force 70, which includes the USS Ronald Reagan strike group, as saying. The U.S. Navy didn’t respond to a request for comment on Sunday.
At a monthly news conference on Thursday, Chinese defense ministry spokesman Col Wu Qian accused the U.S. of sending its forces into the South China Sea to undermine Beijing’s resolve to protect its own national sovereignty.
“It is an act of militarization in the South China Sea and it endangers regional peace and stability,” he said. “But I’d like to say that the U.S. side is making the wrong calculation. The Chinese armed forces never give in to outside forces.”
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