The landlocked African kingdom of Lesotho doesn’t have an obvious stake in the South China Sea, but it is among some 60 countries that China says stand behind it as it faces potential censure by an international tribunal over its territorial claims there.
The sudden involvement of Lesotho and other small nations far from Asia is the product of a Chinese blitz to rally support in the final countdown to a ruling in The Hague, which could come this month, on a case brought against China by the Philippines.
The response has been less enthusiastic than China suggests, however: Only eight countries have publicly stated their support for its right to boycott the proceedings in The Hague.
They are Afghanistan, Gambia, Kenya, Niger, Sudan, Togo, Vanuatu and Lesotho, according to public statements reviewed separately by The Wall Street Journal and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, in Washington.
Five countries on China’s list have outright denied backing Beijing, including two members of the European Union.
For a country that has long castigated the U.S. for “internationalizing” the dispute, the drive suggests growing concern in Beijing that the ruling, which can only be enforced through international pressure, could leave it isolated.
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,” said Euan Graham, an expert on the South China Sea at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
China says it doesn’t acknowledge the tribunal’s jurisdiction and won’t abide by the ruling on the case brought by the Philippines—one of five governments whose claims in the South China Sea overlap with Beijing’s.