Singapore caught in the middle as China-Asean country coordinator

by Teo Cheng Wee/ June 24, 2016/ straitstimes.com

BEIJING • An hour before a special Asean-China meeting was convened last week, officials from China and Singapore sat down for a discussion.

Against the backdrop of South China Sea tensions, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pointed out that Singapore should play a role in addressing “historical issues” between China and some Asean countries.

“As the country coordinator for Asean-China dialogue relations, Singapore needs to act as a bridge between the two sides,” he said.

Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan responded that Singapore hopes to help build up mutual trust between Asean and China. But he prefaced his remarks with: “Singapore is just a coordinator, not the leader.”

That point was made to stress Singapore’s impartiality, underscoring the tricky balance it has to strike even as most Asean countries press for a stronger stand against China.

Singapore faces several challenges as country coordinator, noted Professor Tommy Koh, chairman of the governing board of the Centre for International Law at the National University of Singapore. These include the South China Sea disputes, disunity in the Asean family, intense competition for influence between the major powers, and the deficit of trust between China and some Asean member states, he told The Straits Times. Indeed, the idyllic scenery of the lakeside resort near Kunming could not hide the storm that brewed in its meeting rooms.

Singapore’s middleman task has been made more onerous by an impending United Nations tribunal ruling over an arbitration case brought by the Philippines on China’s claims in the South China Sea. The decision – widely expected to go against China – is likely to be announced in a few weeks’ time.

Despite China playing down the arbitration’s significance, its attempts to rally support for its position have laid bare its concern about an international backlash.

At the end of the meeting, the Chinese held a press conference, where Mr Wang described the meeting’s atmosphere as “good” and urged Asean not to view the South China Sea dispute as “the sum of Asean-China ties”. But the press conference was held by China alone, not jointly with Asean as originally announced. Mr Wang also made no mention of a 10-point consensus agreement that China had reportedly sprung on Asean at the last minute, which was viewed negatively by some Asean member states as China’s attempt to bring the grouping on board, and to tell external parties such as the United States not to interfere.

Asean countries had already been wary before the meeting that China would turn it into a public relations exercise for its own purpose, experts and diplomatic sources told The Straits Times. So they baulked at the proposed 10-point consensus statement and made a unified decision not to attend a joint press conference with China, but to issue a statement that reflected Asean’s stand instead. Read more…

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