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What Beijing’s surge in the “South China Sea” means

After years of changing “facts on the water,” Beijing all but controls a key world waterway. While Washington is flexing back, the power game is more sophisticated than just jockeying warships.

They have poetic names – Mischief Reef, Triton Island, Fiery Cross Reef. Just a few years ago they were dots of coral in the middle of the South China Sea, baptized by ancient navigators. Today they are some of China’s most strategic military bases, dredged into artificial existence and bristling with missile systems, runways, and radar defenses. China’s claim to own most of the South China Sea has been ruled illegal by an international court. President Xi Jinping promised Washington he would never deploy military assets to the new islands. Neither has made any difference to Beijing’s drive to impose its strategic grip on a waterway that carries 20 percent of world trade. “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States,” according to the new head of US Indo-Pacific Command. And that is just one step toward a more ambitious goal, most observers say: to supplant the US as the preeminent power in Asia and the western Pacific.

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