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The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has carried out an alarming anti-aircraft drill with missiles fired at dummy drones over the South China Sea to simulate an aerial attack, after Washington challenged Beijing by flying Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers near its highly disputed militarized islands, said the South China Morning Post.

The military exercise, which involved “three target drones making flyovers of a ship formation at varying heights and directions,” is part of a much larger effort by Beijing to increase its military readiness for future combat with the U.S.

The report said the drones served to “precisely verify the feasibility and effectiveness to ensure a close stimulation of an aerial attack target,” according to the report.

In other words, Beijing is preparing for an attack on its islands — most likely led by the U.S. and backed by its regional allies.

Details were limited about the overall military exercise — including the exact date and which militarized island the drill was conducted on.

The report came out shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed great concern over China’s rapid militarization of the South China Sea during a briefing in Beijing with Chinese leadership on last week’s summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Pompeo’s remarks came after the recent U.S. Navy warships and U.S. Air Force Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers traveled dangerously close (separate but related incidents) to the militarized islands, which drew sharp criticism from Beijing.

During Pompeo’s visit to China in April, he “reaffirmed our deep concerns about the building and militarizing of outposts in the South China Sea, as those actions increase tensions, complicate and escalate disputes, endanger the free flow of trade, and undermine regional stability”, the U.S. State Department released in a statement.

China lays unilateral claim to most of the South China Sea, a region that has vast natural resource and one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Other claims to the heavily disputed area are by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. It is still unclear whether Beijing used its sovereign territory or a foreign nation’s territory to conduct the latest round of war drills.

The South China Morning Post said regional military strategists expect relations between Beijing and Washington to further deteriorate over the South China Sea, as Beijing continues to expand its military reach, which was once dominated by Washington for decades.

“The vast waters of the South China Sea connect the Pacific and Indian oceans and have high military, security and strategic importance, so anyone who dominates the region has the advantage,” said Li Mingjiang, an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

“But China is unlikely to follow what the US wants as [Beijing] is also looking to expand its military presence in the South China Sea with the hope of turning the region into an area under its military dominance.”

Xu Liping, a senior research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, agreed with Mingjiang.

“The drills, as well as other recent military exercises, are a message to the world that China is determined about, and capable of, safeguarding its territory in the South China Sea,” Liping said.

“These tensions will remain, but the question is – how are the two sides going to manage this dispute?”

While there is no comprise in sight, the Washington-Beijing struggle for regional dominance in the South China Sea could lead to a further decline in relations between both countries.

To give a perspective of what the future could behold, the escalating trade war between Washington-Beijing could, in fact, lead to a hot conflict, and it seems the epicenter could be the South China Sea.