Beijing has upped the ante with its latest deployment of anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems to fortified outposts in the hotly contested waters of the South China Sea.
And it means China will likely soon send warplanes to the area, too, according to an expert on the region.
"This should be seen as China crossing an important threshold. Missile platforms present a clear offensive threat," Gregory Poling, Center for Strategic and International Studies fellow and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, told CNBC. "[The missile deployment] is a pretty clear threat to the other claimants and furthers China's goal of establishing complete control over the water and airspace of the South China Sea."
According to U.S. intelligence reports, the installations mark the first Chinese missile deployments to Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. The Spratlys, to which six countries lay claim, are located approximately two-thirds of the way east from southern Vietnam to the southern Philippines.