SINGAPORE (Nov 26): Over the last decade, China has taken an increasingly muscular approach to relations with East Asian countries. But, in recent months, it has surprised its neighbours with a charm offensive. What changed? In terms of China’s behaviour in the region, quite a lot.

In 2013, China unilaterally declared an Air Defense Identification Zone covering the East China Sea’s disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands — a move that exacerbated tensions with Japan. A year later, China began to construct large artificial islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea. In 2016, China imposed sanctions on South Korea in response to the decision to allow the US to deploy a missile-defence system there.

Now, however, such geostrategic bullying seems to be taking a backseat to diplomacy. Last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Beijing. Abe’s visit to China was the first for a Japanese leader in seven years, and Xi’s scheduled visit to Japan next year will be the first for a Chinese president in more than a decade.

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