Foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations gathered in Singapore on Monday for two days of informal talks to chart their plans for the year, with issues such as managing the South China Sea territorial disputes and security on the Korea Peninsula expected to top the agenda.
The retreat is the first meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers to be hosted this year by Singapore, which took over the annually rotating chairmanship of the 10-member grouping from the Philippines for this year.
"Certainly the South China Sea and North Korea will be discussed," an ASEAN official told Kyodo News.
With ASEAN and China slated to begin formal negotiations on details to be enshrined in their planned Code of Conduct in the South China Sea in March after agreeing on a framework for the code last year, the ministers are widely expected to discuss ASEAN's approach to the issue and its broader relations with China at their working dinner on Monday night or at their "retreat," or informal meeting, on Tuesday.
ASEAN officials are expecting less tension in the negotiations with China this year on the South China Sea disputes.
"There was a peak of tension and then now everything has cooled down," an ASEAN source said, explaining that tension peaked before and during a related arbitration case that the Philippines lodged against China in 2014 with the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
"This is a very sensitive, very complex set of negotiations," Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in an interview with the Straits Times newspaper, according to a transcript posted on Singapore's Foreign Ministry website.
What has been agreed so far is just the framework that lays out the chapters for the code of conduct, he said, adding that "now, it is the much more difficult point of actually working out the details."
He emphasized that the code is meant to prevent tensions from escalating rather than to actually resolve the competing or overlapping claims.
Official sources say that while ASEAN would like it to be a legal document, China prefers a non-binding document.
Singapore is expected to tread cautiously so as not to antagonize major powers such as China on the one hand and the United States on the other whenever the contentious issue crops up during meetings, with one diplomat describing it as like "walking a tightrope."
Singapore's relations with China hit a rough patch in recent years when it pushed relentlessly for respect for international law in dealing with the South China Sea disputes.
The seizure and detention of Singapore's armored vehicles, which were on transit through Hong Kong last year, was widely seen as China's way of expressing its displeasure with the small city-state.
The importance of the group's relationship with China is also underscored by a two-day meeting of ASEAN defense ministers that began here Monday, which will also see talks between them and Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan on Tuesday.
The ASEAN foreign ministers might also discuss ASEAN's plan to settle the trade negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, by this year after several missed targets to conclude the deal in the past few years.
The RCEP is being negotiated among the 10 ASEAN members plus China, Japan, South Korea and India, Australia and New Zealand.
The ministers are also expected to brainstorm Singapore's proposals for some new projects to strengthen the group's collective resilience against common threats such as terrorism, cybercrime, and climate change and to promote schemes that capitalize on technological innovation.
Singapore is proposing that the ASEAN members start a new "ASEAN Smart Cities Network" project that will enable start-ups and other small and medium enterprises to interoperate and seek greater business opportunities regionally and globally.
Despite criticisms raised in recent years about ASEAN's approach of seeking consensus making meetings more prone to deadlocks, it seems there is no plan for now to change the current status quo for making decisions.
As Balakrishnan said in the interview, "the reason why we need to have consensus instead of a simple majority voting procedure is because ASEAN consists of 10 members who are so very different -- size, history, geography, culture, economic structure, even political systems."
"In such a disparate grouping, the reason for insisting on consensus is to give everyone that sense of security, that sense that their interests would not be overridden. And although it may mean that things take longer to evolve, what it does mean is that when consensus is achieved, you know that it has the support of everyone and you can make progress."