China has controversially seized control of much of the South China Sea due to its Nine Dash-Line claim, a demarcation for what the country believes to be its waters. The South China Sea is hotly contested because of its lucrative shipping lanes, capacity for strategic military advantages and wealth of natural resources such as oil and minerals. At the centre of this disagreement are various island clusters such as the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands.
China has had particularly tense relations with Vietnam and the Philippines over islands in the region.
And these countries have found support from the US, as Washington has sent military personnel to bases in the Philippines and provided patrol vessels to Vietnam.
However, as the US and China have grappled for control in recent years – analysts have warned on a number of occasions that there is serious risk of an accidental conflict.
Hu Bo, director of the Centre for Maritime Strategy Studies at Peking University, said that the deployment of US vessels was aimed at stopping China from taking advantage of a “power vacuum”.
Speaking in 2017, he also warned there was a risk that such incidents could result in a miscalculation and escalate into military conflict.
He added: “This kind of provocative behaviour was totally driven by political needs aimed at showing force and demonstrating strength, but that can become an accident.”
He also said that there could be parties with the US military aiming to create a small-scale and “controllable” conflict with their Chinese counterparts.
Hu Bo concluded: “However, how can you predict and control the consequences of a war?”
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A leaked set of photos given to a Filipino newspaper showed just how elaborate China’s development of military bases has been.
Some photographs showed cargo ships and supply vessels, which the newspaper said appeared to be delivering construction materials to the China-controlled islands.
Others show runways, hangars, control towers, helipads and radomes as well as a series of multistorey buildings that China has built on reefs.