China will establish an international maritime judicial center, a report from the country's top court said Sunday, as it seeks to shore up territorial claims to the South and East China Sea at the center of a growing regional dispute.
The decision comes as an international tribunal prepares to decide a case related to the country's claims in the South China Sea, where it has built a series of artificial islands capable of hosting military facilities.
Beijing has refused to participate in the arbitration brought by the Philippines in hopes of settling competing territorial claims in the region, where China has made sweeping assertions of sovereignty.
The new maritime judicial center will help China "implement its strategy of becoming a powerful maritime country", Zhou Qiang, head of the Supreme People's Court, said in a report to the annual session of the Communist-controlled National People's Congress (NPC) legislature.
The center, Zhou said, will "resolutely defend" China's "national sovereignty, maritime rights and interests, and other core interests".
The country already has a system of maritime courts, which have adjudicated more than 225,000 cases since 1984, the Supreme Court's spokesperson said last year.
Zhou's comments provided no details about how the new center would differ from the existing institutions.
China has long-standing disputes over maritime territory in the East and South China Sea, where it has aggressively pursued its claims through an increasingly muscular military posture.
In recent years, the waters of the South China Sea have become the stage for a tussle for dominance between Beijing and Washington, the world's two largest economic and military powers.
China has never clearly defined its claims to the strategic region through which about a third of all the world's traded oil passes.
The Philippines and several other littoral states have competing claims in the region, as does Taiwan.
Manilla's decision to take its dispute with China to an international tribunal based in the Hague has infuriated Beijing, which insists the matter is outside the court's remit.
A ruling on the matter is expected before May.