Over the past few years, the Chinese military officers attending the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s premier security forum, have always had a tough job on their hands.

They have had to find ways to skillfully and firmly ward off volleys of attacks from the defence ministers of the United States, Japan, and their European allies who openly or implicitly accuse China of disregarding international law and norms, particularly since Beijing started to flex its military muscles over the disputed territories in the South and East China seas.

“Rules-based order” has become one of the most cited buzzwords in speeches that mention China.

However, ahead of this year’s three-day forum last weekend in Singapore, there were suggestions China might receive less attention partly because of a more crowded agenda that included the significant rise of threats from terrorism and North Korea’s nuclear menace as well as concerns over US President Donald Trump and his administration’s perceived retreat from global leadership. Indeed, during the event came the news of the horrific terror attacks that left seven dead and 48 injured in London. Also, the battle between Philippine troops and Islamic extremists rages on in Mindanao.

More importantly, tensions in the South China Sea have eased since the UN tribunal ruling last year in favour of the Philippines in its case against China’s extensive claims. Last month, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations reached a breakthrough agreement on a draft framework for a code of conduct to manage disputes in the sea.

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But to the surprise of many Chinese, China was put on the spot yet again in the first event of the forum. The keynote speech by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull highlighted fears that “China would seek to impose a latter day Monroe Doctrine… in order to dominate the region”.

While he said the international community wanted China to play a bigger role in the region in a way that would strengthen the regional order, he warned that “China would find its neighbours resenting demands they cede their autonomy and strategic space, and look to counterweight Beijing’s power by bolstering alliances and partnerships, between themselves and especially with the United States”.

Turnbull’s blunt tone was not expected by the Chinese, who believed Premier Li Keqiang’s (李克強) visit to Australia in March – the first by a Chinese premier in 11 years and which led to trade and investment deals – should have won some goodwill from the Australians.

The following day, US Defence Secretary James Mattis praised Turnbull for setting the stage for discussions at the conference and warned that the US would not accept Chinese activities that violated the rules-based order that has benefited the region, citing the example of China’s building of artificial islands and militarisation of facilities in the South China Sea.

He said the scope and effect of those activities differed from those of other countries “in the nature of its militarisation, China’s disregard for international law, and its contempt for other nations’ interests, and its efforts to dismiss non-adversarial resolution of issues”.

On the same day, Japan’s Defence Minister Tomomi Inada also highlighted the need to uphold the rules-based regional order, along with Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne and France’s Minister of the Armed Services Sylvie Goulard.

Understandably, those criticisms earned strong rebukes from the Chinese delegates and the foreign ministry spokesperson who accused those countries of “ulterior motives” over comments on maritime disputes.

But what is more striking is that, compared to previous forums, the focus of this year’s conference shifted from China to rising concerns and doubts about the US commitment to the Asia-Pacific region and its lead on rules-based order.

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The question-and-answer session following Mattis’ speech saw the delegates raise more questions over US priorities and the impact of Trump’s “America First” policy.

Michael Fullilove, head of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy, summed up the sentiment of many by stating that while Mattis preached “rules-based order”, Trump seemed an nonbeliever. “Given everything over the past four months, including Nato, [Trans-Pacific Partnership] and Paris, why should we not fret that we are present at the destruction of that order?” he asked Mattis. That question raises one of the biggest paradoxes in today’s geopolitics. While Washington is using every possible opportunity to castigate China for undermining international norms and the rules-based order, it is itself dismantling some of the essential rules of the order.

Mattis gave his speech less than two days after Trump announced the US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, following Washington’s earlier withdrawal from the 12-nation TTP trade deal and Trump’s repeated criticisms of Nato. All those decisions have raised concerns among regional allies about the US withdrawal from global leadership, opening the door wider for China to assert its economic and military clout.

In response, Mattis asked for patience, paraphrasing an often quoted remark that once Americans had exhausted all possible alternatives, they would do the right thing. In Sydney last week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson again defended the Trump administration, saying it should be judged for its actions and not words.

How does one distinguish between the two and whose words one should believe or not believe?

Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper