The Chinese military base on Mischief Reef, off the Philippine island of Palawan, loomed in front of our boat, obvious even in the predawn dark.
Radar domes, used for military surveillance, floated like nimbus clouds. Lights pointed to a runway made for fighter jets, backed by warehouses perfect for surface-to-air missiles. More than 900 miles from the Chinese mainland, in an area of the South China Sea that an international tribunal has unequivocally determined does not belong to China, cellphones pinged with a message: "Welcome to China.”
The world’s most brazen maritime militarization is gaining muscle in waters through which one-third of global ocean trade passes. Here, on underwater reefs that are known as the Dangerous Ground, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, has fortified an archipelago of forward operating bases that have branded these waters as China’s despite having no international legal grounding. China’s coast guard, navy and a fleet of fishing trawlers harnessed into a militia are confronting other vessels, civilian and military alike.