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South China Sea Beijing in propaganda overdrive ahead of key court ruling

Beijing claims some 90 percent of the South China Sea, and the Philippines is challenging it under a United Nations maritime convention.

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As an international tribunal prepares to rule on Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea, officials in Washington, Tokyo and Southeast Asia are on tenterhooks.

Yet, in the words of one senior Chinese official, Beijing does not care.

On July 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague will rule on a case brought by the Philippines against China over its territorial claims and actions across the disputed waters and vital global trade route.

Beijing claims some 90 percent of the South China Sea, and the Philippines is challenging it under a United Nations maritime convention.

"We do not know, we don't care, in fact, when this arbitration decision will be made, because no matter what kind of decision this tribunal is going to make, we think it is totally wrong," China's ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, told Reuters at a recent lunch in London.

"It has no impact on China, on China's sovereignty over these reefs, over the islands. And it will set a serious, wrong and bad example. We will not fight this case in court, but we will certainly fight for our sovereignty."

Beijing's plans to ignore the ruling would represent both a rejection of the international legal order and a direct challenge to the United States, which believes China is developing islands and reefs for military, as well as civilian purposes in a threat to stability.

It would also significantly raise the stakes over dispute, according to lawyers, diplomats and security experts.

How Washington handles the aftermath of the ruling is widely seen as a test of its credibility in a region where it has been the dominant security presence since World War Two against an increasingly assertive China.

China in turn sees this as a matter of defending its territorial and political sovereignty against the United States.

Other nations laying claim to disputed areas of the South China sea felt emboldened to challenge China because they felt they had the United States on their side, Liu said.

"They probably believe that they have America (behind them) and they can get a better deal with China. So I'm very suspicious of America's motives."

So while Beijing scoffs at the imminent decision, it is also making an international PR effort to get its view heard.

Beijing has organised meetings with diplomats and journalists and has expressed its views in a slew of editorials and academic papers around the world.

"Manila has no leg to stand on," said one report in the China Daily's inaugural New Zealand edition.

Asian and Western diplomats said their Chinese peers were raising the issue constantly, and at all levels.

"It's relentless. We haven't seen anything like this in years," said one Asian-based Western envoy.

China says more than 40 countries back its position that such territorial disputes should be handled through bilateral discussions not international arbitration, although only a handful of countries have publicly voiced their support.

READ: China tells US to play constructive role in region in South China Sea case

Both Chinese and Western analysts say the ruling is not just about the territorial claims in the South China sea, but speaks to broader Sino-U.S. tensions over China's rise.

"This is about exposing Washington's declining primacy," said Zhang Baohui, a mainland security expert at Hong Kong's Lingnan University. "China gains reputational power by showing the U.S. that it can't dictate Chinese actions."

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