On a map of the world, the South China Sea appears as a scrap of blue amid the tangle of islands and peninsulas that make up Southeast Asia between the Indian and Pacific oceans. Its 1.4 million-square-mile expanse, so modest next to its aquatic neighbors, is nonetheless economically vital to the countries that border it and to the rest of us: More than $5 trillion in goods are shipped through it every year, and its waters produce roughly 12 percent of the world’s fish catch.
Zoom in, and irregular specks skitter between the Philippines and Vietnam. These are the Spratly Islands, a series of reefs and shoals that hardly deserved the name “islands” until recently. In the past three years, China, more than 500 miles from the closest of the Spratly reefs, has transformed seven of them into artificial land masses; as it’s reshaped coral and water into runways, hangars sized for military jets, lighthouses, running tracks, and basketball courts, its claim to sovereignty over the watery domain has hardened into an unsubtle threat of armed force.
Mobile signal towers on the newly cemented islands now beam the message, in Chinese and English, “Welcome to China” to cell phones on any ships passing within reach. But its latest moves, in the long-running dispute with its neighbors over the sea, the fish in it, and the oil beneath it, are anything but welcoming: China appears to have deployed weapons systems on all seven islands, and last week seized a U.S. Navy underwater drone.