Jiang Yu, the steely spokeswoman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has had a sharper tongue than usual in recent days. Members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee are "anti-China clowns" for awarding this year's Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, she told a press conference. The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, is "arrogant and unreasonable" for passing a resolution calling for Mr. Liu to be freed from prison.
It's not just angry words coming from the Chinese government of late. In addition to shouting itself hoarse over the Peace Prize given to Mr. Liu for his two decades of pro-democracy efforts, Beijing - which views Mr. Liu as a subversive criminal - has cancelled ministerial visits with Norway and leaned on foreign ambassadors to avoid Friday's Nobel ceremony in Oslo.
And it's not just the Nobel Prize. Diplomats around Asia have been taken aback by what they see as a new assertiveness - some call it aggressiveness - emanating from Beijing in recent months. They point to China's hardened line in territorial disputes with neighbours such as Japan, India and Vietnam, as well as its unbending support for North Korea even through provocations such as last month's deadly shelling of a South Korean island and recent revelations about its restarted nuclear program.
In a cable obtained by WikiLeaks, Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Beijing, wrote in February that China's "newly pugnacious" foreign policy was "losing friends worldwide."
Nonetheless, in a demonstration of China's new influence, at least 19 countries - all of them boasting either significant trade ties with Beijing or similarly repressive governments - have agreed to stay away from the Nobel ceremony, making it the largest boycott since the Communist bloc was absent from the 1975 ceremony honouring Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. Like Mr. Sakharov, Mr. Liu will be absent when his name is read out in Oslo, with a decade to go on an 11-year prison sentence for "inciting subversion."
It isn't new for the Communist Party to take a tough line on internal dissent, but it is new for China's rulers to use their economic clout to bludgeon other countries into changing their behaviour.
As recently as a year ago, many in the diplomatic community were praising President Hu Jintao and his administration for the skillful way they were managing what China was calling its "peaceful rise." Using a practical, trade-focused approach to foreign relations, Beijing gained in stature while the U.S., embroiled in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, faded from Asia over the past decade. When it recovered first and fastest from the global financial crisis, China seemed in a position to assume a role of global leadership.
But then Beijing abruptly changed tactics. Subtlety and consensus are out, replaced by threats and coercion. "China sees itself as an exceptional nation, like the United States, a superpower that does not need to comply with established norms of behaviour," said Charles Burton, a China expert at Brock University. "If China continues like this, the situation could deteriorate into one of real confrontation in North Korea and elsewhere in the region."
Over the past few months, China has:
» Escalated a collision between one of its fishing boats and two Japanese coast guard vessels (video appears to show the Chinese craft ramming the Japanese ships) into a near trade war by cutting off exports to Japan of precious rare earth minerals.
» Refused to criticize North Korea's shelling of a South Korean island, instead saving its barbs for the joint U.S.-South Korean naval exercises launched in response. China also blocked strong condemnation of Pyongyang at the United Nations Security Council.
» Elevated its claim to nearly all of the South China Sea - parts of which are claimed by six other countries - to the level of "core national interest," the same terminology used to describe red-line issues Tibet and Taiwan.
» According to India, Chinese troops and aircraft have staged several incursions across the Himalayan border between the two countries. China claims the Indian province of Arunchal Pradesh as "southern Tibet."
» In the WikiLeaks cable entitled "Stomp Around And Carry A Small Stick" (which has not yet been made public, but which was reported in Britain's Guardian newspaper), Mr. Huntsman said "numerous third-country diplomats have complained to us that dealing with China has become more difficult in the past year."
Beijing, in each case, claims to be the aggrieved party. The Japanese coast guard is blamed for instigating the islands' dispute. South Korea and the United States are accused of starving Pyongyang into a strategic corner. China sees a U.S. hand pushing Vietnam, Malaysia and other countries to challenge its claims over the South China Sea.
But taken together, there's a forceful new pattern to how Beijing is dealing with its neighbours and the wider world. Some link the change in posture to the looming handover of power in 2012, when President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are due to step aside in favour of a new generation of leaders headed by current Vice-President Xi Jinping and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang.
Neither man has a military background, but they need the support of the million-member People's Liberation Army - including some hawkish senior generals - to ensure a smooth succession. "If you're Li Keqiang or Xi Jinping, you certainly don't want to be accused of going soft on the U.S. or the anti-China group," said David Zweig, a professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "There are people in China who feel this is the time to strike, or at least to be more assertive."
The new attitude accompanies a long-term build-up in military spending, most notably in developing an transglobal fleet that could eventually challenge the long dominance of the United States in the region.
Others see the Communist Party as responding to a rising sense of nationalism among ordinary Chinese. "If they do not [take these positions] the Chinese people won't agree. There is no space for the government to choose," said Huang Jisu, a sociologist who co-authored the bestselling book Unhappy China. He and the other authors argued the world's most populous country - also now the second-biggest economy - needed to stand up for itself on the international stage.
It's difficult to see, so far, what Beijing has gained from its tough new approach. While its sharp escalation of the dispute with Japan may have forced Tokyo to back down and release the Chinese fishing boat captain it arrested, the episode rattled countries in the region, many of whom sent envoys to Washington asking for a show of support. It came in the form of U.S. President Barack Obama's recent trip to Asia in which he visited India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea, circling China without setting foot in it. Japan and India also held a summit to discuss how to deal with their mutual neighbour.
Rather than solidifying its position as Asia's new power, Chinese chest-thumping has pushed some of its neighbours back toward the United States just when some of them were beginning to question whether Washington still had a useful role to play in the region. Similarly, China's fury over the Nobel Peace Prize has only served to convince many that Mr. Liu was exactly the right choice for the award. With China perhaps realizing that it may have overplayed its hand, and seeking to ease tensions, an essay was published this week on the website of China's Foreign Ministry. "The notion that China wants to replace the United States and dominate the world is a myth," wrote State Councillor Dai Bingguo, top foreign policy adviser to Mr. Hu. "China's so-called strategic intent is not as complicated and abysmal as some people have imagined - as if we have some secret agenda and ambitions."
Saying no to Nobel
Countries that heeded China's call to snub the awards
At least 18 countries are joining China in avoiding the Nobel ceremony, many because of oil-industry or other economic ties to China, or because the prize went to a Chinese dissident over Beijing's objections, and they are not sympathetic to dissidents either.
Oil: China has major investments in the oil industries of Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Sudan, Iran and Iraq, which those countries would not want to jeopardize.
Aid and economics: Sri Lanka, Algeria and Afghanistan are all increasingly reliant on China for aid and development that they would not want to put at risk by offending their benefactor. Colombia is increasing its economic ties to Beijing.
Politics: Pakistan, Cuba, Venezuela, Morocco, Vietnam, Tunisia, Egypt and Russia have a history of intolerance toward dissidents, and would not want to see one of their own critics recognized with a Nobel. Serbia's snub of the Nobel may have to do with the country's courting of Chinese support for its opposition to independence for Kosovo.