Singapore to focus on cooperation against emerging threats as ASEAN chair: PM Lee

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MANILA: As the incoming chairman of regional bloc ASEAN, Singapore’s focus will be to step up cooperation to build resilience against non-traditional and emerging threats and transform and integrate members’ economies to take advantage of new technologies and the digital revolution, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Monday (Nov 13).

Speaking at the 31st ASEAN Summit plenary, he said the terrorist threat in the region  has increased sharply in recent years, partly inspired by the earlier successes of Islamic State (ISIS) in the Middle East.

In May this year, Marawi, a small town in Mindanao in the southern Philippines. was taken by extremist militants and declared the regional headquarters of ISIS in Southeast Asia. The Philippine government officially declared an end to the siege late last month.

“ISIS has been trying to establish a caliphate not just in Marawi but also in other Southeast Asian cities,” Mr Lee said.

While congratulating the Philippines for ending the siege in Marawi city, he warned of an increased flow of returning fighters to Southeast Asia, as IS loses ground in Iraq and Syria.

Bombed-out buildings in Marawi after the siege AFP/TED ALJIBE

Mr Lee urged law enforcement agencies to continue coordinating closely to exchange timely intelligence. He welcomed the Manila Declaration to Combat the Rise of Radicalisation and Violent Extremism, which underscores ASEAN’s commitment to address the issue, he said.

He also called on ASEAN to maintain unity and credibility on issues of regional and international concern, adding that the regional bloc has expressed “grave concerns” over North Korea’s recent nuclear and ballistic missile tests on a number of occasions.

ASEAN must continue to reiterate its call on North Korea to abide by its international obligations and commitments, he said. 

ASEAN WELL PLACED TO HARNESS TECH OPPORTUNITIES

Given a growing middle class and a youthful demographic, ASEAN is well-placed to harness the opportunities of technology and globalisation to generate jobs and growth for member countries, Mr Lee said. 

ASEAN is the world’s fastest growing Internet market, he said. “Our populations are internet-savvy, adept with technology and adaptive to innovation,” he added. ASEAN’s digital economy is projected to grow by 500 per cent to around US$200 billion (S$227 billion) over the next decade. 

As ASEAN celebrates its 50th anniversary, members must strive to keep the regional group relevant, competitive and prosperous, Mr Lee said.

To that end, ASEAN has to push on with its economic integration efforts, against the current climate of anti-globalisation and protectionism, he said. He added that steady progress is being made towards building an ASEAN Economic Community, which could become the fourth largest single market in the world by 2030.

ASEAN has come a long way, PM Lee said, taking stock of its achievements.

Ministers gather at the ASEAN meeting in Manila, where it was announced the group is to sign a free-trade agreement with Hong Kong in November. (AFP/TED ALJIBE)

“ASEAN has created a peaceful and stable environment for economic growth, fostered continued integration and cooperation and engaged external partners in the region while keeping the regional architecture open and inclusive,” he said.

He welcomed the conclusion of the ASEAN’s free trade and investment pacts with Hong Kong on Sunday, as he urged ASEAN to strive for high quality trade agreements that afford the “maximum balance of benefits for our businesses and peoples”.

He also said ASEAN must continue efforts to conclude a “high quality” Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement. RCEP is an FTA under negotiation since 2012 among the 10 ASEAN countries and partners which the organisation has existing agreements with. These countries are China, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and India.

LOOKING FORWARD TO DEEPER COOPERATION ON SOUTH CHINA SEA

Mr Lee also spoke on the regional issue of potential conflict amid competing claims for the South China Sea. He welcomed the collective efforts made by all parties to build mutual trust and confidence.

ASEAN and China completed the framework of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and finalised the Declaration for a Decade of Coastal and Marine Environmental Protection in the South China Sea, Mr Lee said, describing them as importantsteps forward.

Tensions between Vietnam and China over the South China Sea came to a head in 2014 when Beijing moved an oil rig into waters claims by Hanoi. (Photo: AFP)

He added that he looks forward to “deeper and more substantive cooperation” between ASEAN and China on the South China Sea, including the official commencement of negotiations on the Code of Conduct to be announced at the ASEAN-China summit on Monday afternoon.

The Code is expected to lay down legally binding rules and guidelines aimed at preventing armed confrontation among countries laying claim over the South China Sea. Countries directly involved include China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. 

“It is also important to continue pursuing practical confidence-building measures among our militaries to de-escalate tensions and avoid the risk of miscalculations,” Mr Lee added. 

ASEAN should build on a joint statement to develop a set of common guidelines on how military vessels and aircraft should interact when they encounter each other unexpectedly, he said. 

In concluding his speech, Mr Lee congratulated Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on his able and steady stewardship of ASEAN.

Mr Lee, who said that Singapore will also focus on building an ASEAN Community that is relevant and citizen-centric, said: “As Singapore prepares to take over the Chairmanship in 2018, we will build on the good work by the Philippines and previous Chairs to strengthen our Community.”

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