Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), believes China is "changing the operational landscape" in the South China Sea with its deployment of missiles and radar. Harris, a straight-talking military man, says this is part of a plan to achieve "hegemony in East Asia." It is hard to disagree.

China is one of six claimants — the others are Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam — to territory in the South China Sea, a vital waterway through which passes $5 trillion worth of commerce each year, that provides protein for an estimated 500 million people, and which is thought to have extensive mineral resources. China's claims are the most expansive, extending over almost all of the water and land. At a recent naval conference, Vice Adm. Yuan Yubai, commander of the North Sea Fleet of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), spoke for many Chinese when he said that "the South China Sea, as the name indicates, is a sea area that belongs to China."

The basis of the Chinese claim is history. Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan province in southern China, has argued that "China was the first country to discover and name these island groups. The history of continuous use and exercise of authority spans over 2,000 years."