AMERICA and its friends in Asia have long worried about the South China Sea becoming a Chinese lake—a vast stretch of water, through which half the world’s commercial shipping passes, falling under the control of China’s fast-expanding navy and coastguard. In the past few months these fears have been amplified by satellite pictures showing Chinese barges pouring sand onto disputed reefs, in order to turn them into islands. On several of these remote outcrops, unsuited to civilian habitation, China appears to be building airstrips and harbours to accommodate jets and warships.
With this show of military force, China is asserting a long-standing, if outrageous, claim to ownership of virtually the entire sea. This is a dramatic change of tack (see article). China still claims to believe in settling territorial disputes by diplomacy. Yet, by going ahead and planting its flags, it is ignoring the protests of its neighbours, not to mention America.