Chinese officials began their meeting with Asean foreign ministers in Brunei this week by accusing their 10 neighbours of an anti-Beijing conspiracy over disputed South China Sea territory. China singled out the Philippines, calling Manila a provocateur and threatening war.
It was hardly a display of Chinese diplomacy at its best. Now, China has agreed to discuss a code of conduct with Asean, but Beijing clearly is going to take a hard line in the talks.
Brunei is playing host this week to a string of meetings of foreign ministers from Asean, and from the group's partners and neighbours. There is no denying the political and historical issues at work at the meeting.
China has conflicting claims over the China Sea with Japan, South Korea and four Asean members _ the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and conference host Brunei. Reasonable people would agree such a meeting of senior diplomats would provide a golden opportunity for discussions seeking solutions to vexing problems.
China's startling threats, made through the top mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, are worrisome.
Starting a discussion with a threat of violence seems unhelpful to any solution, and Beijing knows full well that abject surrender by its six disputing fellow members of the world community is no option.
The People's Daily, however, sent a different message on the eve of the Brunei meetings. It began with an attack on the Philippines for asserting its claim over parts of the Spratly Islands. The Communist Party's official journal then moved on to an attack on Asean as an "accomplice" to the Philippines, saying the 10-member group was trying to gang up on China by sticking together. Finally, it threatened: "If the Philippines continues to provoke China ... a counterstrike will be hard to avoid."
On the face of it, China's accusations range from exaggerated to false. It is ludicrous for Beijing, after its decades of stunning diplomatic successes and acceptance in every Asean country to now claim there is a conspiracy against China, on this or any issue.
Only one explanation seems logical. It is that China, once again, is attempting to gin up xenophobic nationalism as a national issue. The old, cold-war attempt by China to claim it is being isolated by all its neighbours will certainly fool no one outside the country's borders.
Beijing refuses to accept that any other country can feel as strongly or as righteously over China Sea territory as China itself. The attempt to belittle and denigrate other countries is beneath China. Yet Beijing officials continue to do just that. Now they are including all Asean countries, including Thailand, in their attacks and threats. This is unacceptable.
Brunei was hoping to lead a discussion of the great and dangerous problem of the China Sea disputes. Certainly, neither the host nor other Asean members was preparing for a threat of violence from one of the other guests. And here is the fact Beijing should be addressing _ China, Vietnam and the Philippines have all resorted to violence among themselves in the Spratly Islands in recent years. It achieved nothing.
Thailand and its Asean partners should spend this week counselling and urging each other to remain calm, as well as China, South Korea and Japan. There is no scenario to justify war in the Spratlys or the East China Sea. China in particular should tone down the anger, approach the code-of-conduct talks with an open mind, and vow to solve problems peacefully.