Saturday, 25 June 2016

Singapore caught in the middle as China-ASEAN country coordinator

Still, it did creditably as 'the well wasn't poisoned and bridges weren't burnt' despite the Kunming meeting ending with disjointed public statements
By Teo Cheng Wee, China Correspondent, The Straits Times, 24 Jun 2016

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 coordinator 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.

Singapore does not take sides in foreign policy: Chan Chun Sing
Republic adopts principle-based stand as it needs global system based on rules and inclusiveness
By Kor Kian Beng, China Bureau Chief In Beijing, The Straits Times, 7 Jul 2016

Singapore does not take sides with any country but adopts a principle-based and independent stand in its foreign policy driven by its own interests, said labour chief Chan Chun Sing.

That is because as a small country with few resources, it needs a global system that is based on rules, principles and inclusiveness, he added, speaking to Chinese youth at a dialogue in Beijing yesterday.

"We don't side with any party. We only pursue a world order grounded on principles and openness," said Mr Chan, who is also Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.

His remarks come as spotlight is cast over Singapore's role as country-coordinator of China-ASEAN relations and as a mutual friend of both the United States and China, which have clashed over the South China Sea territorial disputes between Beijing and several South- east Asian nations.

A special ASEAN-China foreign ministers' meeting held last month in south-western Yunnan province ended with no clear consensus on handling the South China Sea issue. Chinese media have also run commentaries in recent months questioning whether Singapore is taking sides with Beijing or Washington.

In his 45-minute speech to about 50 students at the Renmin University, Mr Chan cited two instances to show how Singapore has acted independently in its foreign policy, despite external pressure.

It executed two Indonesian marines for staging attacks in the Republic in 1965 during the Konfrontasi period, and also expelled an American diplomat in 1988 for interfering in Singapore politics.

Mr Chan added that Singapore, despite its small size, hopes to play a positive role in global affairs, be it in the Global Governance Group, the Group of 20 economies, or the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank spearheaded by China.

Mr Chan, who was visiting Beijing yesterday as chairman of the People's Action Party youth wing, met with Mr Qin Yizhi, chief of the Communist Youth League, the youth wing of the Communist Party.

In his meeting with National Development and Reform Commission vice-chairman He Lifeng, both men reviewed the progress of the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative (CCI) since its launch last November.

Mr Chan is in Chongqing till tomorrow to attend meetings related to the CCI - the third government- led project between both countries after the Suzhou Industrial Park and Tianjin Eco-city.

In his speech, Mr Chan cited the three projects to illustrate how Singapore has supported China's development and changing needs over the years. He said there are growing opportunities for cooperation as both countries are facing similar challenges such as achieving sustainable growth, maintaining social harmony and meeting their youth's aspirations.

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