When U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter spoke at a key Asian summit at the weekend, he used the word "principled" 38 times, floating his vision of a U.S.-backed "security network" of countries in the region.
Several delegations were quick to respond to the idea at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, but it seemed to evolve into a form of diplomatic tag-team wrestling as a loose coalition of nations lined up to criticize China.
Nations including Japan, India, France and Vietnam joined calls for greater respect for international law to resolve worsening tensions over the South China Sea, a dig at Beijing which has said it will not accept any ruling by a U.N.-backed court on the dispute.
Chinese officials, meanwhile, stressed Beijing's commitment to being a peaceful, lawful and inclusive nation but said it would not be bullied.
"No one has the right to point their fingers at China," said Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of the joint staff department of China's Central Military Commission, as he faced a string of questions at one public forum at the summit on Sunday.
"Belligerence does not make peace."
Sun was sharing a podium with Vietnamese deputy defense minister Nguyen Chi Vinh, who said he was cutting short his own responses to allow his Chinese counterpart more time to rebut criticisms raised of Beijing.
Concern at China's assertiveness over the vital trade route was deepening, several envoys said on the sidelines of the summit, particularly given the prospect of Chinese military facilities on new artificial islands built by on reefs in the South China Sea.
Those concerns were forcing regional countries to band closer together to find new ways of standing up to Beijing.
Carter's urging of greater regional efforts, particularly from China, to create his "principled security network" was underpinned by warnings that China risked isolating itself by its actions "on the seas, in cyberspace, and in the region's airspace".
Many militiaries in the region, he said, were working closer together, both among themselves and with the United Sates.
Japan's defense minister, Gen Nakatani, said Japan would seek to participate annually in naval exercises together with the United States and India, similar to drills due to take place off the Japanese port of Sasebo later this week.
"It is very meaningful from the standpoint of securing safety in the wide area of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, for Japan, the United States and India to cooperate on security and defense areas and to conduct training," Nakatani said.
Great Wall of isolation
Carter's warnings that China faced a looming "Great Wall of isolation" were rejected by Chinese officials, but some analysts said an "us versus them" divide may suit Beijing in current circumstances.
"It might sound tough talk, but my worry is that China's leaders will simply welcome that kind of view," Lee Chung Min, a professor at Seoul's Yonsei University, told Reuters.
"If its economy slows, China's leaders might welcome the chance for the isolationist talk to stir some domestic nationalism."
U.S. Secretary of Defence Ash Carter meets India's Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar for a bilateral at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore June 4, 2016.
Major General Yao Yunzhu, of China's Academy of Military Science and prominent figure during the weekend sessions, acknowledged perceptions that some nations might be "ganging up" on China but said this did not represent "objective reality".
"The South China Sea is not the only security issue in the region, and events like this one are not quite full reality," she told Reuters. "Each nation has to think of its bilateral relations with China as well, and many other security issues, that pull us closer together."
Admiral Harry Harris, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, made clear that while the U.S. military was attempting to engage and co-operate with China's rapidly modernizing military, it was prepared for a darker outcome.
"The bottom line is this: we want to co-operate where we can, but we just have to be ready as a military to confront them if we must," he said.
Malaysia defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein spelt out the costs to smaller regional countries if great power rivalries escalate, however.
Whatever happens between major powers must not "leave us on the beach when the tide goes out".