BANGKOK -- When ASEAN was established in 1967, the binding bond was a common fear of communism.
With the backing of the U.S., the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was formed as a counterweight to the rising influence of China.
Those dynamics began to change after Beijing embarked on an economic "Opening up and reform" policy in 1978 under Deng Xiaoping. As China's economic growth accelerated, the whole of Asia was attracted to it like a magnet.
Today, China accounts for roughly 20% of trade with ASEAN, making it the bloc's biggest business partner.
For years, Southeast Asian countries have relied on the U.S. for their security while tying their economic growth to China. Such a balancing act was only possible under the premise that China was on a "peaceful rise." Now that China, under President Xi Jinping, has ditched such slogans, the region is waking up to smell the coffee.
The People's Liberation Army is "constantly harassing our sea and air space," Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen said at a promotion ceremony of military officers last month. "We need to always be on the alert and keep a close watch to protect national security."
China's military aircraft are repeatedly flying over the Taiwan Strait that lies between China and Taiwan. The number of intrusions into the "air defense identification zone" that Taiwan constantly monitors is almost once every two days, a frequency that has not been seen in recent years.
The "one country, two systems" formula that China uses in Hong Kong was originally introduced as a model for the eventual unification of Taiwan. But with the enacting of the new Hong Kong national security law, that narrative has lost credibility.
When Chinese Premier Li Keqiang delivered the government work report to parliament in May, the word "peaceful" disappeared from the part that touched upon reunification with Taiwan. China has been vocal in proclaiming that it will not hesitate to use force to prevent Taiwan's independence. It continues to threaten Taiwan as the island moves to strengthen ties with the outside world.
China is flexing its muscles in all directions. In April, China unilaterally established an administrative district in the South China Sea, where it has conflicting territorial claims.
When it tussled with the Indian army in the border-disputed area of the Himalayas in June, China had sent in militia with martial arts backgrounds in advance, knowing that firearms cannot be used in the area.
China's external expansion looks to be a way to muster domestic support, at a time when the country faces deeper divides with the U.S. and Europe over allegations that it hid information regarding the new coronavirus.
"China is not prepared to sit in the central chair of the international community," a Thai government official said. "That has become clear."
In late April, when Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison proposed an independent survey on the source of the new coronavirus, an enraged China imposed restrictions on the import of barley and meat from Australia, and recommended that its people refrain from visiting the country for tourism or study.
China has begun to "wield the economic coercion weapon," said Michael Shoebridge, director of defense and national security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. "As Chinese government aggression increases, the business risk for all companies trading with China is growing."
China's method of taking the economy hostage to increase the pressure on countries has spread to Europe. Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to the U.K,. recently warned that if Huawei Technologies is blocked out of Britain's 5G network, Chinese companies could withdraw from plans to build nuclear power plants and high-speed railways in the U.K.
Such blatant threats are expected to increase, especially at a time when the U.S.-led international order is at a crossroads.