The numerous overlapping sovereign claims on islands, reefs, and rocks — many of which disappear under high tide — have turned the South China Sea into a virtual armed camp. And China has been quietly perfecting one of its key military outposts in the disputed waters.
The South China Sea, which is home to more than 200 specks of land, serves as a gateway to global sea routes through which approximately $3.4 trillion of trade passes annually.
China, the second-largest economy in the world, links its economic security closely to these waterways since more than 64 percent of its maritime trade transited through the region in 2016. The South China Sea is also a vital trade artery for Vietnam, Japan and South Korea.
The Spratly Islands, to which six countries lay claim, receive significantly more attention than other areas in the waters. Since there are more stakeholders involved with them, they are considered to be a more likely flashpoint for potential conflict.
Just north of the Spratly Islands lie the Paracels, where Beijing has quietly been building up a rugged power projection platform. Woody Island, the largest of the Paracels, lies at the center of China's strategy.