MANILA: Singapore hopes to build up e-commerce frameworks, cyber capabilities and create an ASEAN network of smart cities as the incoming chairman for the regional bloc, the country’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Tuesday (Nov 14).
Mr Lee was speaking at a commemorative summit marking 20 years of partnership among ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea, collectively called ASEAN Plus Three.
It is important that the group finds innovative ways to harness the opportunities afforded by new technologies, he said, adding that the East Asian countries are already at the forefront of technology adoption, particularly in e-commerce and smart cities.
“There is tremendous potential if we combine efforts and leverage on each other’s strengths,” he said. ASEAN’s digital economy is projected to grow by 500 per cent, to around US$200 billion (S$272 billion) by 2025, he added.
On Monday, at a summit with China, Mr Lee said there is much ASEAN can learn from the regional superpower when it comes to financial technology, e-commerce and smart cities.
Since its establishment in 1997, ASEAN Plus Three has been a “valuable mechanism in our regional architecture”, Mr Lee said. “It has catalysed mutually beneficial cooperation across fields such as tourism, finance, health, education and food security,” he said.
He added that ASEAN Plus Three has fostered collaboration and sense of collective during tough times, such as the financial crises and the SARS epidemic.
A report published by the ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office (AMRO), earlier this year said that the Asian financial crisis in 1997 was a “landmark event” for ASEAN Plus Three that spurred intra-regional integration in trade and investment and led to systems to ease the impact of global threats. Separately, the SARS epidemic in 2003 also prompted the countries to establish frameworks and mechanisms to combat such highly infectious outbreaks.
ASEAN PLUS THREE AN “ECONOMIC NEXUS”: PM LEE
Describing ASEAN Plus Three as an “economic nexus”, Mr Lee said that in 2016, ASEAN’s merchandise trade with the Plus Three countries amounted to nearly US$700 billion, or 31 per cent of ASEAN’s total merchandise trade.
Mr Lee added that ASEAN is happy to adopt the Manila Declaration on the 20th Anniversary of ASEAN Plus Three Cooperation. The declaration will take note of the significant achievements of the ASEAN Plus Three in the last two decades and also set the direction and priorities for the coming years.
Still, there is a need to further advance economic and financial integration, he said. While he said he was glad to see the region pressing on with economic integration amid growing sentiments against globalisation, he reiterated that it is important to intensify efforts to conclude a high-quality and comprehensive Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
RCEP is a free trade agreement under negotiation since 2012, involving ASEAN Plus Three along with India, Australia and New Zealand. RCEP will bring tangible benefits to the group’s businesses and citizens, and “show the world that East Asia is confident in our economic future”, he said.
ENHANCING CONNECTIVITY TO IMPROVE LINKS
“It is also encouraging that we are deepening regional connectivity to enhance our physical, institutional and people-to-people linkages,” Mr Lee said. He said that cruise tourism is a “particularly promising sector” to deepen infrastructural and people-to-people connectivity among the countries.
He said this as he spoke about the “potential synergy” among the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025 and Plus Three countries’ initiatives on infrastructure. ASEAN’s plan surrounds sustainable infrastructure, digital innovation, seamless logistics, regulatory excellence and people mobility.
“We can also push ahead with practical demonstration projects of common interest to showcase our commitment to promote connectivity,” he added.
He said that tourist flows across East Asia are rising rapidly, citing figures. Plus Three countries accounted for more than a quarter of tourist arrivals into ASEAN in 2015, up from just over a fifth in 2014, he noted.
He added that the group should continue to strengthen key ASEAN Plus Three initiatives such as AMRO and the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralisation. AMRO is seen as the Asian version of the International Monetary Fund and has been described as an “early warning mechanism” that can provide policy recommendations to avert crises, while the Chiang Mai Initiative functions as a joint reserve that provides loans for countries in financial trouble.
MAINTAINING REGIONAL PEACE AND STABILITY
He also spoke on the need to work together to maintain regional peace and stability. “Regional security is the cornerstone of our growth and development,” he said, adding that Singapore is “deeply concerned” about the situation in the Korean Peninsula.
Singapore strongly condemns recent provocations by North Korea, he said.
“These actions pose a severe threat to regional peace, security and stability. Any miscalculation will have devastating consequences,” he said, urging North Korea to desist from its provocations and abide by international obligations and commitments.
In concluding his remarks, Mr Lee said that as ASEAN chair in 2018, Singapore will do its best to further deepen growing ties with the Plus Three countries and work towards achieving the long-term goal of building an East Asian Community.
“We should build on the ASEAN Plus Three’s dynamic character, and strengthen its role in our open and inclusive regional architecture,” he said.