Each year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its affiliated organizations hold hundreds of meetings, at which officials from countries across Asia come together to issue bland, verbose communiqués about everything from agriculture management to the handling of spiny dogfish and to listen to interchangeable speeches by government officials. Along with an inevitable level of boredom, the meetings feature exaggerated, affected displays of courtesy that would not have been out of place at the Tudor Court. Attendees address each other as “your excellency” and keep up constant streams of flattery.
All of which made the events at last July's ASEAN Regional Forum, held in Hanoi, rather unusual. On the sidelines of the meeting, several Southeast Asian nations, fearful of China's growing power, had been pushing the United States to reassert a larger role in the region, particularly to mediate disputes in the contested South China Sea, which China claims almost in its entirety. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed these countries' demands—declaring that freedom on the South China Sea was in America's “national interest”—Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi lost his composure. According to several reports, he suddenly got up and exited the meeting. One hour later, he returned and launched into a 30-minute-long monologue. At one point, Yang mocked his hosts, the Vietnamese; at another, he declared, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that's just a fact.” Yang stared down the foreign minister of Singapore, a country known in the region as one of America's staunchest friends. The Singaporean foreign minister, a normally placid man named George Yeo, stared right back.