China's South China Sea strategy is about to suffer a reverse. On July 12, an international tribunal will decide on a case brought against China by the Philippines. While nothing is certain, there are two things we can say with reasonable confidence about what will happen next. First, the tribunal is highly likely to rule -- in a statement known as an "award" -- that some of China's claims in the South China Sea are incompatible with international law. Second, Chinese spokespeople will unleash a torrent of rhetoric denouncing the tribunal -- and the Philippines -- and declaring that China will not accept the ruling.
Beijing's ambassadors have already prepared the ground. Officials have written articles and bought advertisements in newspapers around the world. Some have aimed personal abuse at the tribunal's judges (at a recent international conference, for example, the editor-in-chief of the Chinese Journal of International Law, Sienho Yee, criticized the integrity of two of the highly-respected judges on the grounds that they were nationals of "former colonial administrators” in Southeast Asia), sent them stern letters and accused the former president of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea of bias, purely on the grounds that he is Japanese.