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Asean has made progress on its long-term goals and areas of cooperation, says PM Lee

JAKARTA – Asean has made progress in planning for its long-term goals as well as on specific areas of cooperation, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Thursday.

Speaking to local reporters at the close of the 43rd Asean Summit and related meetings, PM Lee also held up the gains made through cooperation within the bloc, as well as externally.

He and other regional leaders have spent the past week in Jakarta, where they had talks among themselves as well as with external partners.

These included summits with Australia, Canada, China, India, Japan, South Korea, the United Nations and the United States, as well as large-group meetings.

On Asean’s internal agenda, PM Lee noted how the bloc has a long-term plan for what it wants to achieve in its next phase, in the form of the Asean Vision 2045.

In 2015, the grouping’s leaders agreed on a road map for the bloc, Asean 2025: Forging Ahead Together, to work on collectively raising the region’s profile and ensuring the prosperity of each member state.

The group set up a high-level task force to discuss the extension of this plan, the Asean Vision 2045, which will spell out how the bloc can continue its work post-2025 and achieve its aims for the next 20 years.

PM Lee said that discussions had also involved specific areas of cooperation, including the digital economy, and he highlighted how Asean had embarked on discussions on its Digital Economy Framework Agreement.

This trade pact – for which the bloc launched negotiations just before the Asean Summit – seeks to facilitate more seamless cross-border digital trade and allow for online trade across countries in the region to become faster and more convenient.

“If it is done well, it has a lot of promise, because the digital economy is one of the vibrant areas in many of the Asean countries. And if we can work together, I think the dividends are considerable,” said PM Lee.

Asked about the outlook for the Singapore economy, he noted that there was some sluggishness, but said: “We don’t think that we are going to a recession this year. But what happens next year, we are not sure yet.”

The leaders also touched on the green economy, and PM Lee said that what came up in the discussions was sustainable energy and cooperation, as well as the Asean Power Grid.

This potential project, which would bring together sources of green electricity in the region and make energy consumption more sustainable, is an essential element of sharing renewable energy resources, he added.

“Because when you are talking about renewable energy, whether it is wind, whether it is solar, it is intermittent. Clouds come, the rains come, the winds can stop. And you need to have backup against intermittency,” said PM Lee.

“And that means you need a grid. And that means you need investments. So, that is a major piece of cooperation.”

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Asean’s economy, in the global context, is a bright spot because the world’s economy is not that vibrant now, said PM Lee, adding that the region is working to make sure its growth continues.

The region needs to enhance its capabilities, competitiveness and cooperation so that whatever the economic environment is, it can do better for its people, and he said that Asean is trying to do that.

The Prime Minister noted there is also work being done on how Asean operates, including its secretariat and secretary-general.

Discussions on this touch on their functions and powers, and will help Asean to work better together, he added.

Turning to the external environment, PM Lee said leaders talked about the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) during their discussions over the past week, adding that they have progressively put content into this concept.

The AOIP lays out the bloc’s common position on regional cooperation, security and prosperity, as well as its stance on not taking sides with any major power competing for influence in the region.

“It has become a framework which enables us to cast our cooperation with the rest of the region,” said PM Lee.

Responding to a question on what he thought about US President Joe Biden skipping the events in Jakarta, PM Lee said that Asean would have been very happy if he came, but Vice-President Kamala Harris came, and the bloc had good engagements with her.

“And I think that what is important is the substance of the cooperation, as much of this as a symbolism. It is better if we have both. But in any case, there is a substance,” he added.

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PM Lee also answered a question on the South China Sea, which has overlapping territorial claims by China, Taiwan and four Asean states – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Recently, tensions have also simmered over China’s new national map featuring a 10-dash line that includes the waters off the South-east Asian nations’ coasts as well as part of the north-east of India, triggering objections from several sides.

Asean is currently working on a code of conduct in the waterway, and PM Lee said that progress has been made.

He brought up how Asean has a Declaration of Conduct of Parties, which was inked between Beijing and Asean in 2002, and calls for peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea.

“It is important that we work hard at it. We have made some progress, but it will take some time. But nevertheless, it is better that we are talking about this positive agenda on the South China Sea,” added PM Lee.

“So that even if there are incidents which happen, or untoward developments, you have got something positive which we are working on and which can be the basis for the participants.”

Touching on what Asean is doing to maintain its relevance, he said that Asean is not about one single spectacular thing, but instead, multiple, patient, positive things.

By accumulating all this patient work, Asean makes a difference, and has made a big difference to the world, he stressed.

Without the grouping, PM Lee pointed out, there would be no forum where leaders from countries like the US, China, Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand and Russia could come together.

Asean hosts the East Asia Summit, an annual summit comprising the bloc’s countries and eight partners.

“Because there is Asean every year, we have this forum, and it is very valuable to us. And when we speak internationally, Asean can make a statement, it carries some weight because you are talking about a substantial population,” he added.

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