Beijing, China. As Syria and Ukraine heat up this summer, so too does the South Pacific, where China wants its wishes understood as it expands its orbit of influence. Beijing has reached a new peak in its bid to control the widely disputed South China Sea after pacifying rivals, keeping Washington away and building out artificial islands that are ready for military hardware and a Chinese future.

In another sign of tighter maritime control, Beijing’s official Xinhua News Agency said Sunday that a Chinese destroyer, frigate, supply ship and helicopter had joined Russian vessels for phase one of “complex” and “lengthy” joint military exercises that are starting in the South China Sea. Russia has the world’s second most powerful armed forces and China the third.

China’s rise in the sea, which is claimed by five other governments, follows a year of unfettered diplomacy with those countries and a decade of landfilling some of the sea’s 500 tiny land forms to support infrastructure construction.

“I think there is an unspoken understanding that there’s no way China can be stopped,” said Collin Koh, maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “I think it’s a fact that China is the dominant player there other than the USA.”

China’s Communist leadership stepped up one-on-one dialogue with the militarily weaker Southeast Asian countries after a world arbitration court ruled in July against the legal basis for the Chinese claim. Beijing offers aid in exchange for muting any protest against China’s maritime military expansion, analysts say.

China offered the Philippines $24 billion in aid and investment last year. It has pumped Vietnam’s service sector with tourists while discussing maritime cooperation. Malaysia counts China as its top investor and trading partner. Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines once looked to the United States for resistance against China. Now US President Donald Trump wants China’s help on stopping North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.

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