Asean has achieved much this year: Vivian

The Straits Times - - FRONT PAGE - Yas­mine Yahya Se­nior Po­lit­i­cal Cor­re­spon­dent

As Sin­ga­pore gets ready to host its fi­nal key event as Asean chair­man this week, For­eign Min­is­ter Vivian Balakr­ish­nan said the group­ing has achieved far more this year than he had dared to an­tic­i­pate.

It has made head­way not just in in­te­grat­ing the re­gion’s economies, but also in up­hold­ing a mul­ti­lat­eral rules-based or­der and tap­ping dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy to pre­pare its peo­ple for the fu­ture – in line with the themes of in­no­va­tion and re­silience that the Re­pub­lic had iden­ti­fied for its chair­man­ship year, he said in an up­date to Sin­ga­pore me­dia last Fri­day.

Dr Balakr­ish­nan noted that on the eco­nomic front, Asean mem­bers and six part­ners have made sig­nif­i­cant progress on what would be the world’s largest free trade area at a time when there is push­back against glob­al­i­sa­tion and free trade around the world.

Lead­ers of all 16 coun­tries ne­go­ti­at­ing the Re­gional Com­pre­hen­sive Eco­nomic Partnership (RCEP) will be in town for the Asean Sum­mit, and they will at­tempt to reach a break­through on dead­locked ar­eas at a meet­ing on the trade pact.

Aside from the 10 Asean mem­bers, Aus­tralia, China, In­dia, South Korea, New Zealand and Ja­pan are ne­go­ti­at­ing the RCEP. Also in Sin­ga­pore are lead­ers from Rus­sia, the United States, Canada and Chile.

“It’s go­ing to be a very, very packed, in­ten­sive few days,” Dr Balakr­ish­nan said.

This year, the group­ing also en­dorsed an agree­ment on e-com- merce, put into ef­fect the Asean Sin­gle Win­dow and signed the Asean self-cer­ti­fi­ca­tion scheme – all of which aim to ex­pand op­por­tu­ni­ties for the re­gion’s busi­nesses and fa­cil­i­tate the move­ment of goods and ser­vices across bor­ders.

As part of its ef­forts to up­hold a mul­ti­lat­eral rules-based world or­der, Asean also man­aged to make progress on a Code of Con­duct to man­age ten­sions in the South China Sea.

Mem­bers and China agreed on a sin­gle draft text on which to ne­go­ti­ate the code. “This doesn’t mean it’s all done but, nev­er­the­less, it pro­vides a good ba­sis on which fu­ture ne­go­ti­a­tions can pro­ceed,” Dr Balakr­ish­nan said.

“More im­por­tantly, it low­ers tem­per­a­tures, calms the wa­ters, and I think the sit­u­a­tion in the South China Sea is cer­tainly much bet­ter than the years pre­ced­ing this year,” he added.

And while he was un­will­ing to put a spe­cific time­frame to con­clude the code, he said it was more im­por­tant to keep chan­nels open, build con­fi­dence and trust, and al­low all par­ties to re­solve dif­fer­ences and move for­ward. Good progress has been made thus far, he added.

Mem­bers of the re­gional group­ing also fi­nalised the text of a model ex­tra­di­tion treaty, which will have to be built upon, launched the Asean Law Academy and ini­ti­ated a frame­work to strengthen coun­tert­er­ror­ism co­op­er­a­tion in “re­silience, re­sponse and re­cov­ery”.

Th­ese, the min­is­ter said, show the group­ing’s ad­her­ence to a rules­based world or­der, the need for co­op­er­a­tion and mu­tual re­spect and that “a lot more can be done by ne­go­ti­a­tions and work­ing proac­tively rather than com­pet­ing or by rais­ing the tem­per­a­tures”.

As for pre­par­ing South-east Asia to seize op­por­tu­ni­ties af­forded by the dig­i­tal revo­lu­tion, one of the Re­pub­lic’s key pro­jects as Asean chair­man is the Asean Smart Cities Net­work.

Dr Balakr­ish­nan noted that the re­gional group­ing has iden­ti­fied 26 pi­lot cities, and their of­fi­cials have had chances to meet, ex­change plans and ideas, and cre­ate a plat­form through which the pri­vate sec­tor and ex­ter­nal part­ners can look for op­por­tu­ni­ties for their prod­ucts and ser­vices to be rolled out across South-east Asia.

“Even as we move on and we hand over the chair­man­ship to Thai­land, we prob­a­bly will still con­tinue to act as a shep­herd for this con­cept and con­tinue to act as a fa­cil­i­ta­tor for ef­forts in smart cities de­vel­op­ment across South-east Asia,” Dr Balakr­ish­nan said.

Sin­ga­pore has also em­barked on ef­forts to en­gage youth on Asean, from an e-sports com­pe­ti­tion and mu­sic fes­ti­val to re­new­ing a fund for youth pro­jects in Asean and start­ing an Asean Youth Fel­low­ship – to help build an Asean iden­tity.

One key chal­lenge for the group­ing this year was the ex­o­dus of over 700,000 Ro­hingya refugees from Myan­mar’s Rakhine State fol­low­ing a mil­i­tary crack­down last year.

Dr Balakr­ish­nan ac­knowl­edged

ST PHOTO: DES­MOND WEE

For­eign Min­is­ter Vivian Balakr­ish­nan ex­pects a very packed and in­tense week as Sin­ga­pore hosts its fi­nal key event as Asean chair­man.PROMIS­ING FU­TURE

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