The construction activity is just the latest chapter in a long-running conflict over the South China Sea that has pitted China against most of its maritime neighbors and has brought it into conflict with the United States and Japan. China's push into the area seems designed to bolster Beijing's claim to the resource-rich waters -- which teem with fish and may hold plentiful reserves of oil and natural gas -- and to increase China's ability to project military force in an area traditionally dominated by the United States and its allies.


"If China is actually able to build working airfields and other installations on newly manufactured islands, it will be able to put steel behind its territorial claims," said James Holmes, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College.

The reef building has some in Washington and Tokyo alarmed that Beijing will be able to station Chinese air and naval forces right in the middle of a key shipping lane that sees about $5 trillion worth of commercial traffic a year.

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