As high resolution satellite cameras kept a watchful eye on China's construction activities in the South China Sea, the region's attention momentarily shifted to Kuala Lumpur, where the 48th ASEAN Foreign Ministerial Meeting (AMM) and the ASEAN Regional Forum were held last week.
Malaysia has proven to be a steady and consistent chair. It navigated the potentially tricky ASEAN summit in April with aplomb by coralling the 10 members to issue their strongest joint position on the South China Sea to date. However, leadership is not cost-free, as China has expressed its displeasure at Malaysia.
Malaysia, however, refused to be cowed by Chinese pressure to sweep the South China Sea disputes under the carpet. Indeed, Foreign Minister Anifah Aman set the tone for the meeting in his welcoming remarks by highlighting the disputes as a "prime example" of regional challenges.
Datuk Seri Anifah's boldness was in marked contrast to Prime Minister Najib Razak's opening address, which did not contain a single mention of the South China Sea in a 1,508-word speech.
Was Malaysia playing the "good cop, bad cop" routine? Or was it living up to its billing as the quintessential hedger? Either way, the double play sends mixed signals and gives the impression of incoherence within Malaysian policy circles.
Mr Anifah's plea that "we need to do more" was directed as much at his ASEAN counterparts as at the Chinese foreign minister.
Peace and stability in the South China Sea can only be won by ASEAN and China working in unison. But this goal will remain elusive if China continues to muffle discussions on the disputes.
After 13 years of patient but unproductive talks, ASEAN states are justified in feeling heightened trepidation at the lack of progress on the implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the code of conduct of the Parties that was meant to result in binding rules eventually. The glacial pace of progress on talks for the legally-binding code of conduct is in stark contrast to the increasing militarisation of the South China Sea.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi again echoed Beijing's long-standing position that ASEAN is not the platform to discuss South China Sea issues. This position is untenable for three reasons.
First, the South China Sea will continue to feature prominently in the region's security discourse as the row pits four ASEAN members (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam) against the region's largest trade partner (China).
Singapore's Foreign Minister K Shanmugam rightly asserted that ASEAN and China cannot "wish away or pretend South China Sea issues do not exist". The potential political fallout from the disputes is enough to justify its inclusion on the ASEAN meeting agenda.
Second, China's refusal to accept an ASEAN role in the South China Sea disputes erroneously ignores the fact that non-claimant ASEAN states have an interest and stake in the management and outcome of the rows. The security of the claimant and non-claimant states is inter-connected, and the latter are not immune to the political collateral damage if the South China Sea disputes boil over and threaten regional security.
Third, ASEAN's interest in securing a legally-binding code of conduct stems from its conviction that international law serves as the foundation for inter-state relations. Without a working legal framework, international relations will descend into anarchy, where military power and coercion will be used to intimidate small states and dictate regional affairs.
Seen in this context, the code of conduct is more than a means to stabilise the stormy South China Sea disputes. More importantly, it serves to ingrain international law as a framework for ASEAN members to manage their relations among themselves and with external parties, especially the major powers.
Beijing's pressure on ASEAN to remove the South China Sea issue from the regional discourse undermines the value of ASEAN and the ASEAN-led processes as avenues to manage differences through diplomatic channels.
It is also alarming that just when ASEAN states are expected to strengthen their resolve given rising tensions in the South China Sea since the summit in April, the spectre of "Phnom Penh" loomed large. That was when the 2012 foreign ministers' meeting concluded without a joint statement for the first time in ASEAN's history. This time, ASEAN states cobbled together a delayed joint communique to avoid that ignominy .
Did China extend its long arm into ASEAN affairs again?
It is difficult to ascertain if China did indeed play a role in influencing the ASEAN joint communique this time, as it allegedly did in 2012 during Cambodia's chairmanship. Nevertheless, it would be more worrisome if ASEAN states practised self-censorship to either placate or win favours from China. In either case, ASEAN faces a bleak future if it loses its independence and allows its agenda to be controlled by external parties.
The principle of free and frank discussion must be protected and maintained at all cost. At the end of the day, mentions of the South China Sea in ASEAN documents and communiques are but a symptom of the disease. Even if the issue had been blanketed out of the communique, the reality is that the storm in the South China Sea continues to brew.
Frank and sincere discussion is the first and necessary step to regain strategic trust that seems to be in short supply between ASEAN and China of late.
Singapore, which assumed the hot seat of coordinator for ASEAN-China relations at the AMM, will bring a dose of much-needed diplomatic experience and finesse to keep ASEAN-China relations on an even keel.
In a recent interview, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong injected a sense of pragmatism and advised that "we cannot solve the issues immediately. However, at least, we can cool down the tensions and we can avoid the escalation of tension".
As Malaysia winds down its chairing duties in the coming months, Singapore's stewardship of ASEAN-China relations will take on added significance.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies-Yusof Ishak Institute.
This article was first published on Aug 13, 2015.
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