ASEAN members need to strengthen economic integration, further liberalise trade: PM Lee

BANGKOK: In the face of a slowing global economy, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members must “intensify” integration efforts and uphold a “free, open and rules-based” multilateral trading system, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Saturday (Nov 2).

Speaking at the 35th ASEAN Summit plenary session, Mr Lee pointed out that the global economy has “weakened” since ASEAN last met in June. With populism gaining ground, support for globalisation and multilateralism continues to deteriorate, he added.

“Each ASEAN member state has our own domestic preoccupations. But this global backdrop has made it more urgent than ever for ASEAN to come together, to deepen cooperation among ourselves, in order to counter these unfavourable external trends, and to speak on issues that concern us with one voice,” Mr Lee said.

“On the economic front, we must intensify our integration efforts and uphold a free, open and rules-based multilateral trading system,” he added.

Having internally formed the ASEAN Community in 2015, member countries need to take the next step to fully implement the ASEAN Economic Blueprint 2025, and complete the “unfinished agenda”, said Mr Lee.

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Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Bangkok for the ASEAN Summit on Nov 2, 2019. (Photo: Twitter/ASEAN2019TH)

ASEAN also needs to widen economic links with its partners and further “liberalise” trade with them, he added.

“A major outstanding initiative is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP),” said Mr Lee. “I am happy that RCEP negotiations have made significant progress, and look forward to discussing how we can complete them at the 3rd RCEP Summit on Monday.”

The trade deal involves the 10 ASEAN countries and its six trading partners – China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

RCEP talks were officially launched in 2012 but have faced several delays. If agreed to, RCEP will form the largest trading bloc in the world – accounting for a third of global GDP.

READ: Concluding RCEP trade pact this year the ‘highest priority’

At the same time, ASEAN needs to continue exploring new areas for economic cooperation, added Mr Lee.

One such way is the ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN), he pointed out.

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Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong arrives at the plenary session of the 35th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Bangkok on Nov 2, 2019. (AFP / Lillian SUWANRUMPHA)

An initiative spearheaded by Singapore, the network is envisioned as a collaborative platform where up to three cities per ASEAN country work towards a common goal of smart and sustainable urban development.

Cities include Singapore, Johor Bahru, Phuket, Yangon, Phnom Penh and Vientiane.

READ: 26 cities to pilot ASEAN Smart Cities Network

“The ASCN will enhance ASEAN’s proposition as a single digital market and generate new growth for our countries,” said Mr Lee.

“I am pleased that the ASCN has gained momentum since its launch last year during Singapore’s chairmanship. And I am happy that Thailand has hosted two ASCN meetings this year.

“As the ASCN shepherd, Singapore will work with member states to develop the network further, including of course with the next chairman, Vietnam.”

When it comes to the environment, Singapore also “firmly supports” multilateral solutions to issues such as climate change and transboundary pollution, said Mr Lee.

On its end, Singapore has put together a Climate Action Package, which offers capacity building courses in areas such as climate science and disaster risk mitigation, convened the second ASEAN Climate Change Partnership Conference, and hosted a meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Mr Lee highlighted.

READ: Singapore to help ASEAN better tackle climate change with new programme

To combat transboundary pollution, Singapore will also cooperate with fellow ASEAN Member States.

“Another recurring transboundary challenge, as we were reminded recently, is haze pollution,” said Mr Lee.

“We should fully implement the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. Because by pooling our resources, we can deal with this serious problem more effectively.”

But, ASEAN can only make progress on these “economic and environmental priorities” if the region continues to enjoy peace and stability, pointed out Mr Lee.

“Singapore is pleased that ASEAN and China have completed the first reading of the Single Draft Negotiating Text of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea,” he added.

As ASEAN and China move forward in negotiating the Code of Conduct, and managing the South China Sea issue, ASEAN should continue to reiterate its “shared principles” with regional partners, Mr Lee said.

These include respect for the freedom of navigation and overflight; self-restraint including non-militarisation; and peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Another issue of concern is the situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, said Mr Lee, calling it a “complex problem with both humanitarian and security dimensions”.

“ASEAN should continue to support efforts by all parties, including the Myanmar government, to work towards a comprehensive and durable solution,” added Mr Lee. “Commencement of repatriation on a safe, voluntary, and dignified basis should remain an immediate priority.”

Mr Lee will be in Bangkok until Monday (Nov 4) for the summit as well as to attend various meetings with regional and international counterparts.