WASHINGTON • The United States has warned China against taking "additional provocative actions" following an impending international court ruling on the South China Sea that is expected to largely reject Beijing's broad territorial claims.
A senior State Department official voiced scepticism at China's claim that dozens of countries backed its position in a case the Philippines has brought against Beijing and vowed that Washington would uphold US defence commitments.
Ms Colin Willett, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said Washington had "a lot of options" to respond to any such Chinese moves in a region she said was vital to US interests. She also made it clear that, with a ruling expected possibly within weeks, the US was working to rally allies and partners in the region to ensure a unified front.
How Washington handles the aftermath of the ruling is widely seen as a test of US credibility in a region where the United States has been the dominant security presence since World War II but is now struggling to contain an increasingly assertive China.
"We, the United States, do have very clear national interests in the area," Ms Willett told Reuters on Wednesday. "We have an interest in upholding our defence commitments and our security partnerships."
The Philippines is contesting China's claim to an area shown on its maps as a nine-dash line stretching deep into the maritime heart of South-east Asia.
The consensus among officials and analysts inside and outside the region is that the ruling will go largely against Beijing, which has vowed to ignore the decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
US officials have warned China against declaring an air defence identification zone in the South China Sea, as it did in the East China Sea in 2013, and against stepping up its building and fortification of artificial islands.
They said that, beyond diplomatic pressure, the US response to such moves could include accelerated "freedom-of-navigation" patrols by US warships and increased defence aid to South- east Asian countries. Ms Willett said "it isn't in (China's) interest to take additional provocative actions" after the court's ruling.
China has listed more than 40 countries it says supports its position on the arbitration case. Ms Willett said it was not even clear what those countries "have allegedly agreed to".
"There's some scepticism about that grouping," she said.
Only eight countries have publicly supported China's position, including land-locked states such as Niger and Afghanistan, according to Washington's Centre for Strategic and International Studies.