Whether intentionally or unwittingly, China’s communist party leaders have wedded themselves and their future to exerting unchallenged influence over a busy, crowded body of water through which $5 trillion in trade passes each year, parts of which many countries claim, and where freedom of navigation has traditionally been guaranteed by the U.S. Navy.

And one way or another, party leaders aim to fulfill their pledge to the Chinese people to dominate in the South China Sea because at this point they have no other choice — even if that means using force.

Following last year’s ruling by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea that China could not claim 80-90 percent of the South China Sea as its own sovereign waters, Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Chang Wanquan implored the country to prepare for a “people’s war at sea.” Anything but hyperbole, it was a signal that China does not intend to abide by the decision, no matter how correct it is.

The primary reason why is because for 20 years Beijing has been investing in naval modernization that is being supported by ample shore-based weapons systems and an increasingly modern air force. In addition to adding aircraft carriers China is building blue-water frigates and destroyers, as well as quiet diesel and nuclear-powered subs. During that time the communist party has praised the upgraded navy and proclaimed it will be used to assert Chinese sovereignty while righting historical wrongs.

And now, the party has to follow through on its leaders’ pledges.

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