BEIJING • The landlocked African kingdom of Lesotho doesn't have an obvious stake in the South China Sea issue that has had Beijing locking horns with its neighbours in South-east Asia.
Yet Lesotho is among some 60 countries that China is listing out as standing behind it as it faces potential censure by an international tribunal over its territorial claims, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) newspaper reported last Friday.
China is rallying support from small nations far from Asia, as it awaits a countdown to a ruling in The Hague, which might come this month, on a case brought by the Philippines against China over claims in the South China Sea.
So far though, only eight countries have publicly stated their support for China's right to boycott the proceedings in The Hague, WSJ said, listing them as Afghanistan, Gambia, Kenya, Niger, Sudan, Togo, Vanuatu and Lesotho.
The list came from public statements reviewed separately by the business newspaper and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
Five countries on the list of 60 have denied they were backing Beijing, including two members of the European Union.
Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea, with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague preparing to deliver a ruling on a complex case brought by Manila that could dent Beijing's sweeping sovereignty claim.
China has said it does not recognise the jurisdiction of The Hague tribunal and will not abide by an unfavourable ruling.
In the list of the small nations supporting the Chinese, Beijing is seen as "internationalising" the dispute, suggesting that there is growing concern in Beijing that The Hague ruling, which can only be enforced through international pressure, could leave it isolated, WSJ said.
The mixed results also show the limits of China's clout, even among nations hungry for its money.
"This looks more like a coalition of the equivocal, or the simply unaware," Dr Euan Graham, an expert on the South China Sea at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, was quoted by WSJ as saying.
The United States and its allies - including the Group of Seven nations - have closed ranks recently to urge Beijing to respect The Hague verdict, with US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter warning that China risks erecting a "Great Wall of self-isolation".
China has responded angrily by accusing the US of "hegemony".
WSJ said that while China has not published an official list, its Foreign Ministry put the total number of countries supporting it at more than 40 nations last month. China state media put it at almost 60 last week.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang on Tuesday blamed countries outside the region for broadening the dispute.
"That is why some countries that care about us and are friendly to us want to understand the real situation," said Mr Lu. "After understanding the merits of the issue, they decided to take a stand and uphold justice."