As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling that challenges China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is likely to intensify.
A ruling is expected in the coming weeks and, while China has made it clear that it rejects the entire procedure, many are already beginning to watch for signs of what actions China may take in response.
Some suggest that much like it has done elsewhere, Beijing may continue to expand its buildup of what U.S. Pacific Commander Admiral Harry Harris has called the “Great Wall of Sand.”
Since the Philippines filed a case with the International Tribunal for Law of the Sea in 2013, China has moved quickly to bolster its claims, reclaiming enough land on some features it controls in the South China Sea to create airstrips and other facilities.
China claims 'sovereignty’
Some believe China could start reclaiming land to build up Scarborough Shoal, a disputed reef China calls Huangyan Island. The reef is a little less than 200 kilometers from Subic Bay, well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone or EEZ.
For now, Chinese officials haven’t ruled out the possibility.
Responding to questions about China’s possible response at a recent press briefing, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, "I want to reiterate that the Scarborough Shoal is an inherent part of the Chinese territory. No matter what kind of action that China may take or not, it is something within the scope of China’s sovereignty.”
China has long rejected what it calls international intervention in resolving the dispute and has argued claimants should hold bilateral negotiations instead.
Beijing argues growing U.S. military ties and presence in the region is what is really what is driving up tensions in the South China Sea - not its vast claims that cut into other countries EEZs.
US says not provoking anything
U.S. officials say the buildup is not aimed at China.
"We are strengthening our military role in the region, both unilaterally and through this wide range of partnerships and alliances we have, but that isn't in order to provoke anything,” said U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter during a recent visit to the Philippines.
“It's to continue to stand with the system of principles and peace and security that has kept, that has allowed this region to prosper for many decades here."
Clearly, concerns about Beijing’s intentions and actions in the region are having an impact and boosting cooperation, much to the displeasure of Chinese officials.
Last month, a flotilla of vessels from Japan visited the Philippines, the first such visit to include a submarine in 15 years. During his visit to the Philippines, which confirmed a boost in the United States military presence there, Ash Carter also visited an aircraft carrier that was operating in the South China Sea.
The United States, Britain and others have urged Beijing to abide by the decision when it is finally announced. But China is showing no signs of shifting its stance.
China drumming up support
And as international support is growing for the Philippines before the ruling, which some believe is likely to tilt in Manila’s favor, China is trying to drum up support as well.
During recent meetings, Russia put its weight behind Beijing, arguing against so-called international interference in South China Sea disputes. Three Southeast Asian nations, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei, have also voiced support for countries handling the disputes bilaterally, but only one of them actually has claims in the disputed waters.
Also, the U.S. aircraft carrier John C. Stennis, the same vessel Defense Secretary Carter boarded last month, was recently denied entry to Hong Kong, an apparent slap on the wrist to Washington.