China has sought to control the South China Sea with growing military prowess in an effort to gain a stronghold over global trade.
Beijing has historically had a smaller army than its geopolitical rivals – but that's rapidly changing.
Here's how the country is waging a soft war against dozens of its global competitors to rule the seas.
But first, what is China fighting for?
The South China Sea is a small part of the Western Pacific bordering southern China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.
Yet what makes it so contested is its unrivalled strategic importance.
Asia's most sought-after seaway is the route through which 40% of the world's natural gas trade passes, some $3.5 trillion in general trade value flows each year, and where nearly 6% of US trade interests lie.
No fewer than 26 countries claim a direct economic interest in preserving the international status of the South China Sea – despite China's claim that its ancient historical attachment to the country warrants special access.
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The Philippines even refers to the waterway as the West Philippines Sea in an attempt to overstate its control of the lucrative trade route.
What's clear from all those countries' competing interests is just how murky the area is.
China has got ahead of the game by building artificial islands to fortify its claim to large stretches of the waters.
Beijing has built dozens of government buildings, runways, aircraft hangars and missile launchpads on man-made sand dunes in the Spratly Islands region.
Between 2018 and 2020, a whopping 3,200 acres of usable hard surface was created with dredging and land reclamation. Nuclear launchpads have reportedly been envisioned.
It's not clear whether they'll ever be used, but China's intent is clear enough.
Yet what the Middle Kingdom hopes to obtain from control of the world's most valuable sea is also transparent.
If China is able to set the rules of the South China Sea, it will take charge of a crucial avenue for the world's trade – and America's economy, too.
Though military expansion and invasion drills around Taiwan have been much discussed, it's the unstoppable economic ambitions of the world's largest country to which the South China Sea is an eerie window.
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It's said money makes the world go around.
In this case, money might just threaten its continued survival.
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