"My speculation would be that China has basically calculated that it will take some near-term, rather assertive actions in the South China Sea, and pay short-term reputation costs in exchange for what it believes to be longer-term strategic gains," Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for New American Security, said.
Beijing's real rationale for risking its global reputation over a handful of tiny islands remains open for debate. Most agree that China truly believes it has a historic right to the region — but the South China Sea's relatively paltry energy resources (especially with oil now so cheap) hardly justify such an assertive grab on a realpolitik basis.
Rather, many point to the geostrategic value of the South China Sea.
"The logical conclusion drawn from China's adding ... islands in the southern part of the South China Sea with military-sized runways, substantial port facilities, radar platforms and space to accommodate military forces is that China's objective is to dominate the waters of the South China Sea at will," Peter Dutton, professor and director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College, said in a February speech at London's Chatham House.
"Building the islands is therefore, in my view, a significant strategic event," he said. "They leave the potential for the South China Sea to become a Chinese strait, rather than an open component of the global maritime commons."