The foreign affairs ministers, nearly 20 of them, filed into the banquet hall for a three-hour dinner and cultural program without any alcohol to fortify them. It was Cambodia and the hosts wanted to keep it dry. It was Chinese tea all round.
Russia's Foreign Affairs Minister, Sergei Lavrov, showed some of his colleagues the Russian solution - a sly flask in his coat pocket. So much for the rules-based order.
Australia's Julie Bishop, seated between her Cambodian and Chinese counterparts, grew absorbed in a conversation with China's Wang Yi. She reached for her teacup. "I took a sip of tea and spat it out," Bishop recalls. "It was scotch."
While a concerned Wang asked if she was OK, Bishop looked up to see Lavrov across the room, waving cheerfully at her. "He'd bribed a waiter to put scotch into my teacup. Lavrov is evil," she says by way of explanation.
The gag on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit two years ago came at a time when Australia's relations with Russia were strained.
It illustrates that, no matter how elevated the occasion, a senior politician needs to be on the alert for pranks and trickery.
Take Australia's biggest trade relationship and perhaps most brittle political one, the one with China. Now that Bishop has quit her post as Foreign Affairs Minister, she can speak openly about Beijing's manipulations.
The Chinese Communist Party put Australia in the rhetorical naughty corner last December and kept it there for most of this year. Beijing signalled that it was angry at the Turnbull government's laws to limit foreign interference in Australian politics. Labor also supported the laws, making amends after the damaging scandal of Sam Dastyari.
A rising chorus of concern went up as Australian companies and universities fretted that a furious dragon would unleash its anger on their business interests.
Peak hysteria came from a business consultant who had once been Australia's ambassador to China, Geoff Raby. He demanded that Turnbull sack Bishop to rescue relations. So when Wang met Bishop in May, the encounter was closely watched.
Would there be rapprochement or rage? According to Bishop there was rapprochement. According to China's official statements and state-owned media, there was rage. The clashing accounts dominated the Australian news coverage.
Bishop said the meeting on the sidelines of a Group of 20 meeting in Buenos Aires was warm and positive. Wang's ministry issued a stiff note stating that Australia must "take off their coloured glasses and look at China's development from a positive angle, and provide more co-operation between two countries instead of recoiling".
It was all theatre, Bishop says now. "I'd had 12 or 13 formal meetings with Wang over the years," she tells me. "The Chinese call them formal or informal depending on whether they're in a good mood or not. But I'd met Wang hundreds of times in different settings.
"I thought it was positive because we met. Was it warm? Absolutely. Wang and I get along very well. But China wanted to portray it differently."
Why? "They wanted to send a message home that Australia was not going to get away with saying [China is] going to militarise the South China Sea."
Australia had consistently voiced its concerns whenever China added more military assets to the islands it built in disputed waters, and when its long-range bombers touched down in the Spratly Islands for the first time on newly built runways alongside newly installed missile batteries.
But President Xi Jinping had promised publicly from the steps of the White House that they would not militarise the islands and so the line had to be maintained. Wang told Bishop the facilities were strictly for self-defence, she says.
"Against who?" she responded, in her telling. "Anyone who wants to attack us," came Wang's reply. "Who? Name them!" rejoined the disbelieving Australian minister.
In the entire half-year span of China's displeasure, there was no evidence of any material damage to the annual $160 billion two-way trade relationship. The number of Chinese students enrolling at Australian institutions continues to boom. China's theatrics so far have been like the Chinese traditional lion dance - all dance, no lion.
Bishop refused to be intimidated. Her five years as foreign affairs minister was a time of rising belligerence by Russia and assertiveness by China, capped by an outbreak of populist disruption in the United States. The hallmark of Bishop's performance was that she was not frightened or fazed by any of it.
Barack Obama's ambassador to Australia, John Berry, publicly held her up to be one of the world's best foreign affairs ministers. Privately he put her in the top 10. There was "none finer" he liked to say.
Bishop has said that her proudest achievement was confronting Vladimir Putin after Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine shot down the civilian airliner MH17. Though Russia has never admitted responsibility, Bishop led the international response and managed to win safe access for Australia to the crash zone.
The advent of Donald Trump sent many foreign capitals into despair and many countries recoiled. Turnbull and Bishop immediately set about dealing with the reality of the new US administration.
"Trump respected Turnbull as a no-nonsense businessman," says Bishop. "We maintained the Obama agreement for the US to accept refugees from Nauru, we kept Australian steel and aluminium exempt from US tariffs, last year's Ausmin was stronger than ever, we even produce non-papers" for the US at Washington's request, she says.
Non-papers? A non-paper is a government-produced document that has no official standing. At the request of Trump's first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, Bishop sent him a non-paper explaining the logic of changing the Asia-Pacific as a strategic operating concept to the Indo-Pacific. That is, a zone which doesn't end at the edges of the Pacific Ocean. The US has since followed Australia's lead on this.
Being foreign affairs minister had been Bishop's dream from the moment she entered Parliament, but the reality, she says, was "far more exciting. I learned that Australia is so highly regarded, that our voice matters. We are a significant economy, we are a significant country and we should act like one.
"That's why I never called Australia a 'middle power'. Middle of what? There are 200 nations in the world. Are we in the middle, number 100? We are a top 20 country." Bishop would have called Australia a top 10 nation for most of its attributes if it weren't for the fact that Australia's economy, ranking 13th biggest, doesn't quite make it.
After unsuccessfully running for the leadership last week, Bishop decided to leave her dream job even though the new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was happy to keep her in it. She will say only that she is "considering my options" while remaining in Parliament for now. (Her local newspaper, the Cambridge Post, reported on Friday that she intends to contest the next election).
Why? Her travel schedule was frenetic but at 62 years old she says she is still "raring to go", so it's not her energy levels. In winning just 11 votes in the ballot for the Liberal leadership we can assume she was left feeling overlooked, under-appreciated and dismayed at what she's since called the "treachery" of the other Liberal MPs from Western Australia, none of whom voted for her.
The Liberals can't be said to have entered into a popularity contest in their leadership contest. Bishop was - and remains - by far the most popular with the people among any of the federal Liberals, a status confirmed by an Essential Media poll last week. In a struggle dominated by factions rather than electability, Bishop ran third of the three contenders.
Bishop doesn't say so, but people close to her say that she couldn't work in a Morrison cabinet and in a leadership group increasingly under the sway of the right-wing faction headed by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.
Bishop might have confronted China, Russia and the Trump administration, but she appears to have despaired at the prospect of confronting the Liberal leadership in a post-Turnbull government.
Among the big running arguments that Bishop had been conducting in the government's inner counsels, she had been holding the line on three particularly fraught issues. She was refusing any further cuts to Australia's overseas aid. She was keeping Australia as a participant in a voluntary new international pact on the treatment of refugees. And she was resisting efforts to take Australia out of the Paris climate accord: "What's the point of withdrawing from a voluntary agreement where we're already going to meet our target anyway?" she has argued to colleagues. Bishop's withdrawal may be a signal that she judges these causes to be lost in a Liberal Party at ideological and factional war with itself.
In the end, it seems that while the world was manageable, Liberal Party politics was just too tricky for Julie Bishop.
Peter Hartcher is political editor.
Peter Hartcher is the political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He is a Gold Walkley award winner, a former foreign correspondent in Tokyo and Washington, and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.