Discussions at the ASEAN summit in Brunei last week were polite and diplomatically framed. But none of the participants will have overlooked the sense that China is increasingly becoming the odd man out in the region.
For some years, China has quietly complained that it has been surrounded by allies of the United States and not able to build close relations with its neighbors. Japan and South Korea have close military alliances with Washington, while Taiwan has relied on the US to deter any attempt by Beijing to regain the island. India is friendly with the US, and territorial disputes mean there has been ill-feeling between New Delhi and Beijing in the past. While Russia has resisted a close friendship, the former Soviet republics have been brought closer to Washington, particularly since the September 11 attacks on the US.
If Beijing has a sense of encirclement, it is clear where that comes from. China's leaders are also likely to have felt that circle tightening on its borders during the talks in Brunei's capital Bandar Seri Bagawan.
Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, used the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN) meeting to emphasize his nation's determination to contribute more actively to regional peace and stability. While ASEAN is made up of 10 nations, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Russia take part in the broader East Asia Summit, and the Japanese leader decided that it would be the ideal forum to demonstrate to Beijing the resolve of the other members against China's "aggressively expansionist moves" in recent months.
As well as laying claim to the Japan-held Senkaku Islands, which China says are its sovereign territory and should be known as the Diaoyu islands, Beijing has also laid claim to vast swathes of the South China Sea, including the Paracel and Spratley islands, straining its relationship with Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei. And with the long-running disputes between Taiwan and China unresolved, as well as the Tibet situation, there is concern in the region over where Beijing will next cast its coveting glance.
"PM Abe has been pushing the claim that Japan shares strong values with the US and Australia, but Japan has also been extending its reach to the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and others that it sees as its 'new friends'," Go Ito, a professor of political science at Tokyo's Meiji University, told DW.
"Abe's foreign policy is sometimes described as hawkish, high-handed, and one of containment of Japan's rivals in the region, but the fundamental part of the security policy is that we make the threats posed by our enemies less," he said, adding that could be done through diplomatic measures. "Abe has already taken steps to increase Japan's military budget."
And the diplomatic campaign is bearing fruit in nations that have similar concerns to those of Japan.
"I would say that China is finding it harder than ever to win over new friends in this region to its side," Go said.
Naval aid to Philippines
Prime Minister Abe has confirmed that Japan will provide the Philippines with 10 modern patrol ships, which will be useful for the government in Manila to monitor Chinese activities in disputed waters, while he vows to work with the forces of Australia and New Zealand to ensure maritime security in areas that have been claimed by China.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida also reached agreement with his Indonesian counterpart on cooperating to protect key sea lanes from pirates, while a promise was extended to the government of Thailand to develop transport and economic infrastructure.
And while these two deals are not aimed directly at containing China, they are important in tying the two nations more closely to Japan and its bloc of supporters.
The invitation to link up was even extended to Russia, with Abe agreeing in talks with President Vladimir Putin to seek progress in talks on a territorial dispute over islands north of Japan that has rumbled on since 1945 and, when solved, could lead to far greater economic cooperation in the northern Pacific.
Recent developments appear to have rattled Beijing, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang demanding that Japan, the US and other nations stay out of territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
"China and ASEAN have agreed that the disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved peacefully through consultations and negotiations between countries directly concerned, and countries that are not parties to the disputes should not get involved," Li said at the East Asia Summit on October 10.
He added that freedom of navigation in the region "has never been an issue and never will be one."
Not all convinced
But not everyone is convinced of Beijing's protestations.
"Most other countries are convinced that it was China's more aggressive military and diplomatic actions that caused the cycle of confrontation and crisis of the past several years," said Admiral Dennis Blair, who served as commander in chief of the US Pacific Command and as head of US National Intelligence for two years until 2010.
"However it started, the cycle of military deployments, diplomatic claims and intense media focus in all countries, has now been firmly established."
Fortunately, the admiral added, all military actions to date have been shows of force rather than the actual use of force, but there is always the danger of escalation.
Beijing's behavior of late has come as "a rude shock" to countries, particularly in South-East Asia, that believed in its commitment to peaceful development.
"American and Japanese military capability in Asia is not for aggressive purposes - and there is a 50-year record that verifies this assertion," said Blair. "The military power of the United States and its allies in the region has rather deterred the use of military force within the region, allowing for the economic growth that has benefitted the people and countries of the region.
"However, the future course of China is uncertain, and those who deal with China must have ways to deal with a powerful and aggressive China if it develops in that direction."