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.
Since Singapore was the coordi- nator of ASEAN-China relations and co-chair of the meeting with China, it was Dr Balakrishnan who was the public face of the decision. He did not attend the press conference.
"It may have been seen by China as undiplomatic and left a negative impression about Singapore," said political analyst Tang Siew Mun, head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute. "But the alternative - openly disagreeing with Wang Yi on Chinese soil - would have been worse."
After the meeting ended in acrimony, some Chinese media commentaries and netizens painted Singapore as being biased, raising concerns that the island republic would bear the brunt of China's unhappiness towards ASEAN. A commentary on online news website Ifeng charged that given the changing regional geopolitical landscape, "it seems Singapore cannot maintain its neutrality". This comes after a commentary in Communist Party-linked tabloid Global Times earlier this month said Singapore was taking sides against China on issues such as territorial disputes in the South China Sea. This was refuted by Singapore's Ambassador to China Stanley Loh in a published response.
Political analyst Richard Javad Heydarian of De La Salle University in the Philippines said: "Singapore has been caught in a very difficult position, where it has had to shake up warm and long-standing relations with Beijing in order to fulfil its responsibility as the regional coordinator."
Experts point out there is also increased pressure from the US and certain ASEAN member states, which are pushing for the 10-member bloc to take a stronger stand against China on the South China Sea issue.
Indeed, the joint ASEAN statement due to be released in Kunming was notable for the amount of space dedicated to the concern over developments in the South China Sea. More than half of the statement expounded on South China Sea developments, which ASEAN "cannot ignore" and which have "eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions, and which may have the potential to undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea". The statement did not directly point fingers at China, but stressed "the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation, which may raise tensions in the South China Sea".
In the end, ASEAN did not release it officially after Laos and Cambodia objected. Malaysia however made it public - then retracted it.
The task of bridge builder and maintaining ASEAN's unity and centrality is likely to get tougher for Singapore if China and certain ASEAN countries continue to dig in their heels, while China continues to try to split the grouping, as the Kunming episode has proven.
But Dr Tang noted it was important that ASEAN got its point across to China at the special meeting with "minimum damage".
"Singapore did well in ensuring that the well wasn't poisoned and bridges weren't burnt," he said. "Crucially, this isn't the end of the conversation."
With more than two years to go in its three-year term as ASEAN-China country coordinator, one key task for Singapore is to ensure that the overall promise of China-ASEAN economic relations will not be undermined by the deepening South China Sea crisis, Prof Heydarian said. Already, a more immediate challenge looms, he added. "Once the arbitration case at The Hague is finalised, ASEAN is expected to issue a statement, particularly if the verdict is inimical to China."
But will ASEAN be able to issue a unified statement on such a thorny issue? Given recent events, it will be a tough call, despite the best efforts of the coordinator country.
This article was first published on June 24, 2016.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.