You may not have noticed, as ISIS expands its reach across Iraq and Russia fuels conflict in Ukraine, but the odds of an armed confrontation between the United States and China just dramatically increased.
After years of ignoring China’s growing assertiveness in Asia, the Obama administration has been taken unaware by a major land and power grab by Beijing.
Over the past several years, China has steadily expanded its territorial ambitions, including a claim that the entire South China Sea is under its dominion.
The sea is one of the world’s most strategic bodies of water. It contains crucial sea lanes, such as the Malacca Strait, through which nearly 70,000 ships transit each year.
In the middle of the South China Sea is a loose chain of islets, shoals and reefs called the Spratly Islands. They are claimed by almost every nation in the region, including Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and, of course, China.
The rich fishing waters surrounding the Spratlys have been in contention for decades. The Philippines often have complained to the US — in vain — that powerful Chinese maritime patrol vessels have chased away their boats. Nor is this the only area in which China has thrown around its weight, having challenged Japanese control over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Now the situation has escalated.
China has engaged in a massive reclamation project, dredging up sand and creating islands on shallow reefs. The US government estimates that up to 2,000 acres of new land has been built. On these “fantasy” islands, China is building airstrips and ports, erecting barracks and establishing radar systems. Guns and fighter jets are next.