ALMOST a year ago, China and the Philippines were at loggerheads over their conflicting claims to ownership of the Scarborough Shoal fishing grounds and anchorage in the South China Sea, setting alarm bells ringing about a possible grab for control by Beijing in the maritime heart of South-east Asia.
Today, the dispute still simmers but the main zone of contention between China and its neighbours has moved to the East China Sea, where Beijing is contesting Tokyo's sovereignty and administration over islands known as Senkaku to Japan and Diaoyu to China. The confrontation between China and Japan, a key ally of the United States, has become one of East Asia's most dangerous flash points.
China says it was provoked to take strong retaliatory action after the Japanese government of then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda bought three of the five uninhabited islands in the contested group from their private Japanese owner in September. Japan had rented the three islands but banned landings or development on them to avoid antagonising Beijing. But this arrangement was threatened by moves led by Mr Shintaro Ishihara, the ultra-nationalist Tokyo governor at the time, to buy the islands and build fishing and other facilities there.
The intensifying struggle between Asia's two top economies for control of the islands helped bring a conservative government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to power in December elections on a platform to strengthen Japan's economy and defences.
Since the "nationalisation" of the islands, China has sought to portray Japan as a threat to the region and a country intent on reviving its militarist World War II past when it invaded much of Asia. Yet the areas Beijing claims in the South China Sea are almost certainly far more valuable in the fisheries, energy and mineral resources they contain than the parts of the East China Sea contested with Japan.
Beijing's claims in the South China Sea are also much more extensive than its claims in the East China Sea. The island and maritime zone disputed between China and Japan amounts to around 68,000 sq km. However, Beijing asserts sovereignty and other forms of jurisdiction over approximately 3 million sq km, or about 80 per cent, of the semi-enclosed South China Sea. This is nearly the size of India's land territory (3.3 million sq km).
Why then has China been pursuing its claims over the disputed East China Sea islands in a much more muscular way late last year and early this year than its case involving South-east Asian claimants in the South China Sea?
It is evidently testing Japan and the US at a time when each appears relatively weak and hesitant. Beijing knows that if it can make headway with its East China Sea island claim against two big allied powers like the US and Japan, it will be easier in future to overawe its smaller South-east Asian rival claimants in the South China Sea.
But Beijing also decided to intensify para-military and other operations against Japan, a nation whose wartime aggression is seared into Asian historical memory, because confrontations with smaller neighbours in the past few years have led to a regional backlash against China.
The result has been a rising mistrust of China, increased defence spending to guard against Chinese assertiveness, a turn to the US as a counterbalance to Chinese power, the strengthening of US alliances in Asia, and development of security partnerships as a hedge against Chinese coercion.
Beijing faces an awkward propaganda problem in the South China Sea. Its claims are not against an original imperial or colonial power, as with Japan in the East China Sea.
Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia are South-east Asia's chief claimants to land features (islands, atolls and reefs) in the South China Sea. Tiny Brunei has a minor claim.
Indonesia's Exclusive Economic Zone - extending northwards from Natuna, the main Indonesian island territory in the South China Sea - overlaps in a substantial way with China's far-flung claims.
Beijing's claims in the South China Sea are against states that either fought or campaigned peacefully against colonial powers. In the case of Malaysia and Brunei, the colonial power was Britain. For the Philippines, it was the US. For Indonesia, it was the Netherlands.
All these South-east Asian countries have been proudly independent for decades. Many of them have demonstrated the same kind of stellar economic growth and competent government as China in recent years.
Like China, they have taken their place in the ranks of progressive developing and industrialising nations. They are universally acknowledged to be post-colonial success stories.
These South-east Asian nations with maritime claims place a high premium on sovereignty and national rights, just as China does.
However, all the South-east Asian countries involved are far smaller in population size, economic strength and military power than China.
By these measures, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei are dwarfed by China, the world's most populous nation and second biggest economy and military spender. Even Indonesia, the fourth most-populous nation and South-east Asia's largest economy, is heavily outweighed by China. China is therefore in an exposed propaganda position in the South China Sea. It can easily be portrayed as a regional bully.
Indeed, it is cast in an aggressive light in countless news media reports, and government and non-government analyses, that circulate widely outside China.
The reputational damage to China's international image and its self-proclaimed "peaceful rise" doctrine is already serious.
It will get worse for as long as Beijing maintains what appears to most of the outside world to be a policy of overweening power and sabre-rattling.
The writer is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.