SINGAPORE: ASEAN must continue working hard to remain an effective and central player in the region, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (Mar 13).
Delivering the keynote lecture at research institute ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s 50th anniversary event, Mr Lee noted that the 1960s, which was when ASEAN and ISEAS were formed, was a “very different world” from the 21st century. The Cold War is long over, he said, and Southeast Asia today is largely peaceful and stable.
But he added that there will always be hotspots and difficult issues to deal with from time to time. There is also a need to adjust to a strategic balance which is shifting both globally, and in the region.
Highlighting the growing strength and influence of new powers like China and India, Mr Lee also stressed the need for individual ASEAN countries to adapt to the “new and changing strategic landscape".
“Countries have to take into account the policies and interests of new powers, while maintaining their traditional political and economic ties,” he said, adding that there will be new opportunities like China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
“Individual countries stand to benefit, and so potentially will ASEAN as a whole.”
But at the same time, he added that the ASEAN grouping has to get used to new internal dynamics, as each member feels the influence of the different powers to different degrees. “We must accept the reality of these tidal pulls, without allowing them to lead to fault lines forming within the ASEAN group,” said Mr Lee.
MAINTAINING ASEAN’S CENTRALITY AND RELEVANCE IN TODAY’S “SHIFTING ENVIRONMENT”
In his speech, Mr Lee also stressed the importance of ASEAN working actively to maintain its centrality and relevance in a “shifting environment”.
All ASEAN countries, he said, want to maintain and develop their ties with the US, even as it intensively reviews its trade and foreign policies.
“The US is still the region’s security anchor and the world’s largest economy. We recognise that the political mood in the US has changed,” he said. “The Trump Administration is rethinking America’s international role, and how the US should advance its interests and influence in the world.”
“However, the US has clearly affirmed its determination to stay engaged in Asia, and countries hope that it will continue to play an active role, particularly in Southeast Asia.”
He noted that ASEAN centrality is crucial, but it has “no automatic right” to be the centre of the regional architecture.
“There is nothing to prevent other groupings or regional cooperation projects from being launched,” he said. “Some will compete with ASEAN, others will contribute in complementary ways to regional cooperation and stability.”
“Amidst this Darwinian process, ASEAN members must come together to maintain ASEAN’s relevance and cohesion,” he added. “Only thus can ASEAN remain at the heart of the regional architecture, and a valuable partner and interlocutor to the major powers.”
KEEPING ASEAN RELEVANT AND COHESIVE
Mr Lee called on each member state to support and promote the ASEAN project, in order to keep ASEAN relevant and cohesive.
“Each ASEAN member has its own domestic issues and politics to handle,” he said.
“Governing a country internally is already an all-consuming affair, but ASEAN governments need to look beyond their domestic concerns, put emphasis on ASEAN, invest political capital in the ASEAN project, and make a conscious effort to think regionally and not just nationally.”
“Only with this commitment by member states can we deepen our partnership and make progress on ASEAN,” Mr Lee added.
He also noted that ASEAN countries have given their support to the grouping over the years, gradually but progressively. For example, ASEAN countries supported one another in “difficult times” like the Asian Financial Crisis, SARS outbreak and various natural disasters.
“Now we are cooperating in new areas, including counter-terrorism, climate change and e-commerce,” he said.
SINGAPORE’S ROLE AS ASEAN CHAIR
As ASEAN Chair this year, Mr Lee said Singapore will “do its best” to take the group forward through its Chairmanship themes of “resilience” and “innovation”.
“We will initiate projects to strengthen our collective resilience against common threats such as terrorism, cybercrime, and climate change,” he said. "We will help ASEAN economies to innovate and to use technology, to build a more dynamic and connected community.”
One key project, he said, is to establish an ASEAN Smart Cities Network, to create attractive places in all ASEAN countries, to live, work and play.
But he added that externally, ASEAN needs to deepen its web of cooperation with major partners.
“We are working on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which comprises ASEAN and our six FTA partners,” he said, adding that this will be the world’s largest trading bloc when established, covering about a third of the world's GDP.
“We are also working with the EU on the ASEAN-EU Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement (CATA), and this will be the first substantive aviation arrangement between two major trading blocs.”
Both, he said, will bring “tangible benefits” to ASEAN’s peoples and partners, but they involve significant trade-offs and compromises.
“The decisions will not be easy because so many parties are involved, and especially given growing mood of nationalism and protectionism in many countries,” he said. But he expressed hope that governments will take a long-term approach, assess their enlightened self-interests, and make bold decisions which will improve people’s lives.
Mr Lee added that ASEAN governments have taken such an approach for half a century, and brought the grouping to where it is today.
“This is a remarkable achievement, far exceeding what the founding leaders of ASEAN had imagined,” he said. “The decades of intense interactions have helped to deepen mutual understanding amongst members, and to socialise us to think regionally, and not nationally.”
“This should equip ASEAN countries to cope with the more challenging environment that we are now in, and to build further on what ASEAN has already achieved.”