Clues about the character of the new Chinese leadership are emerging from interactions with other Asians. Contention with the Japanese over the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands suggests Beijing to be more assertive than ever. With the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) there are also contested claims in the South China Sea that color the overall relationship.

The dynamics differ. Four ASEAN members contest China's claims to various islets and features, with Vietnam and the Philippines the most active and vocal compared to Malaysia and Brunei. The group as a whole, however, remains neutral, and some may lean toward China.

Last year, then-chair Cambodia refused any mention of the issue and triggered an unprecedented failure to reach an agreed statement. Some feared Chinese pressure would undermine ASEAN unity.