China's ultimate goal is to annex the whole South China Sea, nearly 1.35 million square miles claimed by China without legal merit and which belongs to six other nations.
The South China Sea includes some of the world’s most important shipping lanes and fisheries. Critically important mineral resources, including oil, are thought to be there in large quantities as well.
Recently, the UN Hague tribunal overwhelmingly backed the Philippines in a case on the disputed waters of the South China Sea, ruling that rocky outcrops claimed by China - some of which are exposed only at low tide – cannot be used as the basis of territorial claims.
It said some of the waters were “within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, because those areas are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China”. The tribunal furthermore found China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in those waters by interfering with its fishing and petroleum exploration and by constructing artificial islands.
Beijing rejected the tribunal's ruling in South China Sea case prompting the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, to say that "China’s territorial sovereignty and marine rights’ in the seas will not be affected will not be affected by the ruling".
China has even go as far as closing the air space around It's artificial islands, which are located in disputed waters, threatening to shoot down any aircraft that will come near them.
Chinese expansion in the South China Sea is bringing conflict between Beijing and its neighbours – Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam – closer than it has been for decades. Vietnam has fortified several islands it controls, while Japan has been publicly rebuked by Beijing over its 'interference' in the sea – most of which China claims. The Philippines has called for "restraint and sobriety" as its own dispute with Beijing rumbles on.
The likelihood is that while China will continue its sabre-rattling in the South China Sea, it is unlikely to push its neighbours so far that a regional war could break out and trigger a Sino-US conflict, but experts increasingly urge both Washington and Beijing to be aware of the costs – if only to deter them further from provoking a conflict that neither sides want.