Until fairly recently, the Chinese were earning praise for their shrewd handling of Southeast Asia. Not anymore.

It’s a showdown at the South China Sea Corral — or so you might think if you’ve been listening to China’s state-run news media. On July 23, speaking at an ASEAN regional forum in Hanoi, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that her government “supports a collaborative diplomatic process for resolving the various disputes” over the South China Sea. She also made a point of noting that the U.S. would be happy to offer its services as a mediator and that Washington opposes “the use or threat of force by any claimant.”

She didn’t name names, mind you, but her remarks still triggered a flurry of invective from China. In recent months Beijing has elevated its claims to territory in the South China Sea to the level of a “core national interest” on par with Tibet or Taiwan, and that has sparked considerable anger among the other countries in the region — including Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam — that claim ownership of pieces of the sea. A few days after Clinton’s sally, China’s minister of foreign affairs, Yang Jiechi, issued a harsh statement of his own in which he slapped down any effort to internationalize the dispute and called Clinton’s statement “virtually an attack on China.” Then, just in case the Americans and the Southeast Asians still didn’t get the message, the Chinese navy staged large-scale maneuvers in the sea, deploying ships from all three of its fleets. Admirals watched as the ships fired off volleys of missiles at imaginary enemies — all of it shown in loving detail by Chinese television. Experts agreed that the whole display was unprecedented.

What’s going on here? Aren’t these the same Chinese who were being praised, a few years back, for their subtle diplomacy, shrewd PR, and clever exploitation of the strategic openings created by Washington’s Middle Eastern adventures? It wasn’t that long ago that China-watchers were assuring us that Beijing would avoid the sort of imperial swagger for which the U.S. made itself notorious earlier this century. “Bilaterally and multilaterally, Beijing’s diplomacy has been remarkably adept and nuanced, earning praise around the [East Asian] region,” wrote U.S. China scholar David Shambaugh in 2004. “As a result, most nations in the region now see China as a good neighbor, a constructive partner, a careful listener, and a non-threatening regional power.” The title of a book published in 2007, by the journalist Joshua Kurlantzick, expressed the prevailing sentiment quite elegantly: Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World.

Given China’s history of benign regional hegemony, some experts insisted, the rest of the world would have nothing to fear even as China’s economy grew. “Dynastic China’s relations with Southeast Asia were to a large extent based on soft power,” Chan Heng Chee, Singapore’s ambassador to the United States, said in a 2006 speech. “It was China’s economic power and cultural superiority that drew these countries into its orbit and was the magnet for the cultivation of their relations.” She concluded her remarks by saying “there is much optimism in Southeast Asia” about China’s rise.

Likeminded Western scholars like the University of Southern California’s David Kang, author of China Rising, found the source for their optimism in the workings of the ancient “tributary system” that functioned for the many millennia, in which Chinese imperial power dominated the Asian continent. Under this system, derived from the highly hierarchical precepts of Confucianism, regional powers merely needed to provide symbolic acknowledgement of Imperial China’s sovereignty over their affairs (as well as a bit of treasure). Having executed the proper kowtow, the kingdoms concerned could then more or less go on living as they liked. Kang argues that this positive memory of China’s light hand is the reason why “no other East Asian [country besides Taiwan] is arming itself against China nor seeking military alliances with which to contain China.”

That was 2007. Three years later, the world’s view of Chinese power has come in for some revision. In his recently published When China Rules the World, the journalist and scholar Martin Jacques writes admiringly of China’s skillful diplomatic overatures in its region, arguing that “For sheer courage and unpredictability, China’s East Asian initiative [in the early years of this century] belongs to the genre of Chinese diplomacy initiated by Mao in the rapprochement with the United States in 1971.” Jacques holds up Australia’s Mandarin-speaking former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, as a perfect example of the new brand of regional leader who is likely to accept China’s claim to a “soft” leading role.

But in the year or so since Jacques finished writing his book, Rudd (who resigned in June for reasons unrelated to China) showed himself entirely capable of savaging Beijing for its human rights record. Last October, meanwhile, we heard from the Singaporeans again. This time Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, better known for arguing the inevitability of Asia’s growing weight in world affairs, gave a speech in Washington that contained this nugget: “In the end, whatever the challenges, U.S. core interest requires that it remains the superior power on the Pacific. To give up this position would diminish America’s role throughout the world.”

What has happened in the meantime, of course, is that China’s artful diplomacy appears to have taken a back seat to good old-fashioned power politics. China’s military has been modernizing itself with stunning speed. Its navy has been busily working away on plans to build aircraft carriers, classic power-projection tools that would have little to do with defending, say, Beijing’s claims to Taiwan. The navy has also been building a big base for nuclear-powered submarines on Hainan Island, off the coast of Guangdong province — again, not exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from a country intent on merely ensuring defense of its coasts. Chinese defense expenditures, meanwhile, remain notoriously opaque, while Beijing has done little to open up channels of communication between the People’s Liberation Army and other militaries.

But these are general trends. The real wake-up call for Southeast Asians came last year, when the Chinese submitted a map to a U.N. legal commission showing that Beijing claimed almost the entire South China Sea as its own territory, despite the fact that the body of water borders half a dozen other countries, too. China has also pressured the Vietnamese to stop offshore oil exploration and at one point detained several dozen Vietnamese fishermen accused of violating Chinese territorial waters.

So now the balancing begins. The Vietnamese and the Americans have suddenly found cause to warm up their bilateral relationship — up to and including military cooperation, which Clinton discussed during her visit to Hanoi. The United States recently lifted a 12-year ban on ties to a unit of the Indonesian army that had been criticized for its spotty human rights record, opening the way for greater cooperation between those two countries’ militaries as well. Even secretive, communist Laos has been reaching out to the Americans.

For the moment, in short, the Chinese have succeeded mainly in driving back many of the region’s countries back into the American embrace. And the Obama administration — recognizing, perhaps, that the United States hasn’t been paying enough attention to its interests in East Asia in recent years — seems ready to hug back. It will be interesting to see what the Chinese do next.

– Christian Caryl