The PLA Navy has carried out its largest live-fire drill yet in the South China Sea, ahead of a ruling by an international tribunal on a dispute with the Philippines over claims to the strategic waters. Warships from the north and east fleets joined the south fleet in the drills, the army mouthpiece PLA Daily said on its website. They focused on “air control operations, sea battles and anti-submarine warfare”, it said. China and US in silent fight for supremacy beneath waves of South China Sea The exercise was also significant because it brought together top generals in a joint command scenario. Navy chief General Wu Shengli joined leaders from the powerful Central Military Commission’s Joint Staff Department, Training Management and the South Theatre Command for the for the exercise. CCTV broadcast images of fighter aircraft and ships firing missiles, helicopters taking off and submarines surfacing. One picture posted by PLA Daily showed a 054A-type destroyer launching a HQ-9 missile. Previous satellite images carried by Fox News showed China has deployed eight HQ-9 systems on Woody Island, with four ready for operation, according to US Fox News. “The drill focused on air control operations, sea battles and anti-submarine warfare,” said the Daily, whose article was also reposted on the defence ministry website. The Daily insisted the exercises were “routine” and unrelated to the ruling. But Antony Wong Dong, a Macau-based military observer, said the prominence of the south fleet was noteworthy. “The PLA has always said its drills do not target a third party. But warships from the South Sea Fleet are playing key roles in the drills, and commanders on-site are all top leaders in the army, hinting that the US Navy was the imagined target,” Wong said. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is expected to deliver its ruling on Tuesday. Manila lodged a case in 2013, challenging China’s claims to much of the strategic waterway. It argues Beijing is violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which both countries are signatories. Beijing has boycotted the proceedings, saying the court has no jurisdiction over the issue and that it will ignore the ruling. The Philippines said on Friday it was willing to share natural resources with Beijing in the contested seas even if it wins the legal challenge. Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration hoped to quickly begin direct talks with China after the verdict. He said the negotiations could cover jointly exploiting natural gas reserves and fishing grounds within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.