The South China Sea has long been the focus of simmering maritime disputes between China, which claims sovereignty over almost all of the sea, and its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific, each with smaller overlapping claims. But strains between China and the United States have increased since February, when satellite images revealed that Chinese vessels are engaging in a massive reclamation project to turn submerged reefs into small islands capable of supporting airstrips. Now a small but vocal group of nationalist web users are seizing on what they view as the latest provocations in the region — and with its own harsh rhetoric, Beijing risks painting itself into a corner to appease its strongly nationalist citizenry.
Since May, tensions between the United States and China have escalated further. On May 20, a U.S. surveillance plane flew over one of the disputed regions with a reporting crew on board, who caught on video the Chinese navy warning the plane eight times to leave the area. On May 25, Foreign Ministry spokesperson called on the United States to “end its provocative behavior.” Then on May 26, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter called for China to halt its island reclamation activities, calling China “out of step” with international norms and indicating that the U.S. military will continue to operate in the South China Sea — comments which he repeated at the May 30 opening address of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, a high-profile security forum held annually in Singapore.