Hainan Island—best known for pirates, poets, and Miss World pageants—is now an unlikely player in China’s quest for supremacy in Southeast Asia.

HAINAN, China—

“No pictures!”

Four men sit on their heels and eye me as I put my phone back in my pocket. We are gathered around three turtle shells. The man who barked the order, in a camouflage jacket and blue swimming trunks, informs me that the shells are 20,000 Chinese yuan—$3,000—per pound.

The shells look a lot like the photos a shopkeeper showed me on her phone earlier that day. The woman, like all other shopkeepers in Tanmen village on the southeast coast of China’s Hainan Island, sells trinkets from the sea: figurines carved out of giant white clam shells, jewelry made from red, black, and turquoise chunks of coral and stone, and the odd lacquered fish. But her street side shop doesn’t sell turtle shells. For that, I’d have to go meet some fishermen in an undisclosed location.

“I can call these guys up,” she had told me. “But you better be sure you want to buy.”

At this point, the four fishermen know I’m not here to buy anything, not least these golden shells, though they are beautiful: mottled with light brown and reddish swirls, polished and gleaming on the floor of this dusty concrete dwelling. I am reminded of Tiger’s Eye, amber, and the planet Jupiter.

“Where did you get these shells?” I ask.

“The ocean,” says the man in the camouflage jacket.

“Are they illegal?”

“Do you want to buy these or not?”

I try again: “If they came from the Philippines or Malaysia then I cannot buy them.”

“They came from China. That’s China’s sea out there.”

The fishermen: are on the front lines of a regional dispute – China’s push into the South China Sea. All photos by Sascha Matuszak

After a few tense moments, I agree to pay a small fee for the privilege of looking at the shells, and they finally lift the garage door and let in the bright, tropical sunlight. We walk back through the lanes toward the village’s one main road, where the fishing fleet is preparing to move out for the night shift.

On the other side of the water, just a few miles away, stand the gleaming towers of Bo’Ao town, the permanent site of the Bo’Ao Forum for Asia. The forum is an annual meeting of high-level officials from China and several Southeast Asian countries, inaugurated in 1998 by Fidel Ramos, the Filipino president at the time, to help iron out any problems between the Asian nations during China’s “peaceful rise” out of poverty and political turmoil.

The fishermen in the foreground are on the front lines of the major dispute in this region: China’s push into the South China Sea. The push is more of a constant prodding at the borders between international and national claims to the natural resources underneath the waves, and to one of the busiest and most critical seafaring lanes in the world.

China uses a combination of force, trade, and diplomacy to assert their claims to the South China Sea. All three are based in and around the city of Sanya, the island’s largest city, a tourist town laced with resorts and a regular host of beauty pageants. It’s also awash in new money. But the glittering glove of Sanya’s economic boom covers the iron fist of the South Sea Fleet, based just a few minutes drive from the city center and by far and away the most powerful navy in the area. Bo’Ao, just over an hour up the coast from Sanya by high-speed rail, adds an official spin and a chance for politicians to talk sweetly to one another.

This year’s Bo’Ao Forum for Asia ran under the theme “Asia’s New Future: Identifying New Growth Drivers,” and the keynote speech was given by Li Keqiang, China’s premier and the second most powerful politician in the land.

Hainan Island was historically a place of exile for Chinese statesmen.

“In the age of economic globalization, no Asian countries can achieve development in isolation from each other, still less can they pursue development as a ‘zero-sum game,’” Li said. “Rather, with our interests closely entwined, we the Asian countries need to seek mutually beneficial cooperation where ‘one plus one can make more than two’ and even produces a multiplying effect in which ‘two plus two makes more than four.’ As a Chinese saying goes, ‘When everybody puts firewood in the fire, the flame rises high.’”

Hainan Island, like the mountains of central Guizhou province in southern China and the oases along the Gobi Desert in the north, was historically a place of exile for Chinese statesmen on the wrong side of a putsch, or poets who took liberties they shouldn’t have. Most official references to Hainan before the late 20th century describe coves infested with pirates, mountains overrun with barbarians, and a coastline laden with pearls.

Hainan developed an air of mystery and adventure that drew carpetbaggers and outcasts from the Mainland, but after the pearl beds were exhausted in the late 15th century, “Hainan’s reputation as a ‘treasure island’ changed to one of a ‘dank, poisonous land unfit for normal men.’” For the next five centuries, Hainan was barely part of the empire, tacked onto the rich, southern province of Guangdong as an afterthought, always the undernourished stepchild of China’s southern coastline.

Foreign missionaries and British entrepreneurs from Hong Kong made an effort to exploit the riches of the island in the 19th century, after the city of Haikou, Hainan’s current provincial capital, was ceded to Britain as a treaty port following the Opium Wars. But pirates hampered efforts to create a sea lane between Hainan and Hong Kong, and disease prevented systematic exploitation of minerals and timber from the interior. The expedition to Haikou was abandoned.

In 1872, Frederick Mayers, the British Consul in Hainan, wrote: “It remains for coming years to lift the veil of uncertainty, and to decide whether so rich and productive, but neglected an expanse of territory is to continue in its present state or to become a valuable contributor to the world’s wealth by means of the admission of western enterprise and commercial relations.”

The Miss World pageant dragged Hainan Island out of muggy obscurity

It would take another 100 years for the neglect to end. In 1988, Deng Xiaoping, the late Chinese president who kick-started China’s economic miracle, made Hainan an official province and a Special Economic Zone, relatively free from standard central planning procedures and able to experiment with new economic models. Real estate scandals and large scale smuggling of duty free goods followed. After several busts, Hainan cemented its place as one of the least important provinces in China, at least from an economic standpoint.

But then, in 2003, Sanya hosted the Miss World pageant. That singular event dragged Hainan Island out of muggy obscurity and into the international limelight. Sanya hosted the pageant another three times in the next five years. Millions of Chinese tourists poured into the area, joined by a who’s who of luxury resort chains. Sheraton opened a hotel in 2002. Marriot followed in 2004. Hilton in 2006. Ritz-Carlton in 2008. Each year brought more people, more resorts, more money. Sanya boomed. Hainan boomed.

My hotel is a half hour’s drive east of Sanya, in Haitang Bay, a chunk of land built up by the local government to help accommodate the 14 million visitors the city expects in 2015. Construction started around 2007, and now the strip already has more than 30 resorts.

Sanya hosted just under seven million visitors in the first half of 2014, mostly Mainland Chinese and Russians, generating RMB 15 billion. In all of 2011, the city had 8 million visitors, which is almost four times the number of tourists that came in 2006. From 2004 to 2014, Sanya received a deluge of Chinese tourists and international resorts, while also harboring a strong and growing military presence, according to local media reports. And that’s only the beginning.

Chinese visitors often wear matching outfits, a way to express cameraderie but also to help them spot each other in large crowds.

In 1974, long before the economic boom, Hainan Island made a pivotal appearance in a small skirmish between China and Vietnam over the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The Battle of the Paracels involved marines and ships from both nations trying to claim and secure the islands. The fighting ended when Hainan scrambled fighter jets and ships from a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) base along the southern coast, squashing Vietnamese forces and allowing China to seize the islands.

In 2001, Lingshui Airbase, not far from Tanmen village, also famously hosted a US Navy spy plane that had to force a landing on Hainan Island after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet. Back then China wasn’t as capable of projecting power as it is now, and Sanya hadn’t yet held the Miss World Pageant—after a brief period of negotiations, the crew and the plane were returned to the U.S., the plane in pieces.

The Hainan Spy Plane Incident was a wake-up call for everyone in the region, but no one heeded the call to the extent that China has. Hainan and the South Sea Fleet quickly became the second most important fleet in the Chinese Navy, following the East Sea Fleet, which faces Taiwan. By the time photographic evidence of a nuclear submarine base on the southern coast of Hainan emerged in 2008, the tide had already turned for the Southeast Asian navies opposed to China in the South China Sea.

Sanya hosted just under seven million visitors in the first half of 2014, mostly Mainland Chinese and Russians.

The base in the pictures has since been confirmed as the Yulin Naval Base, home to the PLAN’s 32nd and 72nd submarine flotillas, as well as the 31st nuclear submarine flotilla. The submarine base is located a stone’s throw from downtown Sanya. When I look at the spot where the roads end on Google Maps, I think of a beast, snarling under its breath amid the revelers. Nothing in the region can compete with China’s bases on Hainan Island, and unlike the Eastern and Northern Fleets, China’s Southern Fleet has unfettered access to blue water.

The Yulin Bay base, a 60 yuan cab ride from the Ritz-Carlton at Yalong Bay, is the point from which China’s power extends into the South China Sea. A sea full of fish, gas, oil, and at least three other nations’ navies. The contentious zone between China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam (and Brunei!) is one of the many flash points in the contact zone between China’s ambitions and the status quo.

For now, the conflict remains low level. A group of Chinese fishermen cross a line, plant a flag, and then scamper back behind their armed buddies. A Chinese oil rig is towed into the zone of dispute, Vietnamese protest in the streets, the rig is towed back. Chinese engineers build airstrips and bunkers (and schools!) on small islets, and Filipino sailors watch and shake their fists from a beached old warship nearby.

Huang Jing, the director of the Center on Asia and Globalization at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, compared China’s actions in the South China Sea to a fat man bumping you with his belly, but stopping just short of starting a real fight. It’s a smarter tactic than some other nations, who storm in swinging, and it has proven to be more successful over time.

China is swallowing up the South China Sea bit by bit, using tourism money, international events, and the steady pressure of naval confrontation, never realized. Indeed, the richer Sanya gets, the more Chinese the South China Sea will become. The submarines and poaching raids backed up by corvettes and coast guard ships are just the fat man’s belly. It’s the vast buffet he offers that will end any disputes out here.

The Tianya Haijiao.

I am walking along a well-kept sandy path just west of Sanya to a spot where men and women are standing in line, two by two, stretching on for a thousand yards. This is the Tianya Haijiao: “Edge of Heaven and Far Corner of the Sea,” a pilgrimage spot for Chinese couples who believe that visiting two boulders here ensures lasting love.

The Tang poet Wang Bo is credited with naming Tianya Haijiao, one of Sanya’s most revered tourist sites. While leaving into exile, Wang wrote the lines: “As long as someone within the country’s borders recognizes me, then even the edges of heaven are as close as neighbors.” The “edges of heaven” were associated with the farthest reaches of the world throughout Chinese history, and in 1733, during the Qing Emperor Yongzhen’s reign, an enterprising governor of Hainan Island, Chen Zhe, had the characters tian ya, or the edge of heaven, chiseled onto a boulder just ahead of me. A century later, just before the fall of the Qing Dynasty, traveling poets added the characters hai jiao, or “far corner of the ocean,” onto another boulder nearby.

The Tianya Haijiao: is a pilgrimage spot for Chinese couples who believe that visiting the boulders here will ensure their love lasts.

Shell hawkers hover around the edges of heaven, gold toothed grins, leathery brown skin. Chinese urbanites here on a package tour with their parents and children look ghostly white in comparison. They demand umbrellas for the boat rides out to the shoals beyond the far corner of the ocean, and squeal when the gentle surf lifts the pontoon boat. I buy a sackful of shells from a Li minority woman.

Much later, in small office, Wu Zhongbin, vice director of the Haitang Bay Development Commission, looks up placidly from a stack of documents and maps. I’m here to learn about Sanya’s ambitious plans to enlarge and expand tourism facilities around Haitang Bay. We end up talking about the changes Wu has seen in his lifetime, first as a kid growing up barefoot and brown-skinned, then as a journalist for the local paper, and now as a government official.

The largest duty free shop in the world

“There was a time when the youth of Sanya had no other choice but to follow in their parents’ footsteps as fishermen, or farmers,” Wu tells me. “But the development of Sanya has opened up a lot of doors for everyone, and that is something we as government officials need to encourage and support.”

His assistant, a man surnamed Ye, pulls me over to one of the largest maps and shows me the dream: water parks; a financial services center, with tax incentives (“tourism can’t be our only industry”); and an expansion on the 301 hospital, an army-run facility and one of the best hospitals in China.

There’s also the largest duty free shop in the world, which opened last August. The old duty free shop maxed out at 10,000 people per day; the new one can hold much more, spreading the consumers out over 100,000 square meters of retail space. Still not enough, Ye says, but it’s a beginning.

Wu waves goodbye as I leave the office, and his face holds a profound sense of certainty: The future of Southeast Asia lies where the edge of heaven meets the far corner of the sea.