With global attention fixated on fraught U.S.-China trade negotiations and on-again, off-again nuclear talks between the U.S. and North Korea, China continues to strengthen its position in the South China Sea. The world's second largest economy is boosting its military capabilities there, and analysts say there's really not a whole lot the U.S. can do about it.
Despite U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis' stern warning on Saturday about "consequences" for China's provocations in the region, experts say that won't slow Beijing's militarization of the strategic waterway, through which $3.4 trillion in global trade passes annually.
The strategic importance of the region to global trade and economic stability cannot be underestimated. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development estimates that roughly one third of global shipping passes through the South China Sea annually. Over 64 percent of China's maritime trade transited the waterway in 2016, while nearly 42 percent of Japanese trade passed through it during the same period.
The U.S. is less reliant with just over 14 percent of its maritime trade passing through it. But it is key for global LNG trade since almost 40 percent flow through the sea, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports.
The latest series of Chinese provocations in the region began last month when intelligence assessments determined the country's military had quietly installed anti-ship cruise missiles as well as surface-to-air missiles on three of its fortified outposts in the South China Sea. Those reports followed assessments a month prior that found China had installed communications and radar jamming equipment on its Spratly Island outposts as well.
Chinese military authorities also announced late in May that China had conducted launch and landing drills with several H-6K long-range bombers at an unspecified base in the South China Sea for the first time, a marked escalation in China's airborne strike capability in the region that places all of Southeast Asia within the nuclear-capable H-6K's combat radius.