In history, countries have sought to increase their territory by bribery, chicanery, coercion and outright force of arms. But while many have sought to dominate the seas, from the Greek city states to the mighty British Empire, none has ever, in effect, tried to take over an ocean or a sea as its own.
But that is what China is actively doing in the ocean south of the mainland: the South China Sea. Bit by bit, it is establishing hegemony over this most important sea where the littoral states — China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam — have territorial claims.
The importance of the South China Sea is hard to overestimate. Some of the most vital international sea lanes traverse it; it is one of the great fishing areas; and the ocean bed, near land, has large reserves of oil and gas. No wonder everyone wants a piece of it — and China wants all of it.
Historically China has laid claim to a majority of the sea and adheres to a map or line — known as the nine-dash map, the U-shape line or the nine-dotted line — that cedes most of the ocean area and all of the island land to it. The nine-dash map is a provocation at best and a blueprint for annexation at worst.