Asean summit: PM sets out areas Asean can focus on in economic integration, tackling key challenges

(From left) Philippine President Benigno Aquino, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at the Asean Summit in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 21.
(From left) Philippine President Benigno Aquino, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at the Asean Summit in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 21.PHOTO: EPA

The establishment of the Asean Community on Dec 31 is a significant milestone in the grouping's history, but Asean members must remember that the journey continues, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said today.

"We still have work to do," Mr Lee told his counterparts from nine other countries at the Asean Summit on Saturday morning.

He highlighted three items members should focus on as they commit to further breaking down barriers to trade and travel across the region of 625 million people.

One, implementing the remaining 20 per cent of the action lines in the existing blueprint for an Asean Economic Community (AEC), including those related to services liberalisation.

Two, ratifying the Asean Open Skies agreement, which would boost air travel across Asean countries.

Three, concluding a high quality Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership (RCEP) - a trade pact being negotiated among 10 Asean countries, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

 

A report by the Asean Secretariat released yesterday said the 10 members have implemented 92.7 per cent out of 506 measures under the AEC that they had targeted to strengthen economic linkages.

But as of Oct 31, the implementation rate of a full AEC scorecard of 611 measures - which includes some targets that have been deferred till after 2015 - stands at 79.5 per cent.

Asean leaders will also adopt a roadmap for the grouping till 2025 and blueprints for the AEC as well as the Asean Political-Security Community and the Asean Socio-Cultural Community on Sunday.

These aim to set the direction for Asean's continued integration over the coming decade.

Need to tackle key challenges, like terrorism

PM Lee said that as Asean becomes more integrated, members are bound to tackle some of the difficulties in their relationships.

 

"How we will deal with them will define the ASEAN Community," he said at the closed-door meeting.

His remarks were released to Singapore media.

Mr Lee also spoke about three salient issues confronting Asean today - terrorism and the growing threat of ISIS, transboundary haze, and the South China Sea.

 

On terrorism, Mr Lee noted that the recent attacks in Paris, Ankara, Beirut and Mali by terror groups are a reminder that the threat is serious and around.

As Southeast Asia is a key recruiting ground for ISIS, which already has a battalion of fighters from the region, countries should step up cooperation and information sharing among security and intelligence agencies.

They should also continue to share best practices on countering radical ideology, as Singapore did in April this year when it hosted an East Asia Summit Symposium on Religious Rehabilitation and Social Integration.

Tackle haze expeditiously

On the haze, which was especially severe this year and affected six Asean members, Mr Lee said he was grateful that all members "have shown resolve to address the transboundary haze issue expeditiously".

Asean Environment Ministers have also set the target of a haze-free Asean by 2020, and institutionalised the activation of international assistance to combat forest fires during the dry season.

Mr Lee said these steps will help members live up to the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.They will also help towards meeting commitments to any new global climate agreement that emerges from next month's COP-21 meeting in Paris.

But more had to be done, he added.

"It is vital that we deepen cooperation and share information to bring errant companies to account for their irresponsible and unsustainable practices that are the root cause of land and forest fires causing haze pollution," he said.

"We must urgently operationalise the Sub-regional ASEAN Haze Monitoring System."

The system was adopted by members two Asean summits ago in Brunei, and involves digitised land use maps and sharing information on concession land in forest fire-prone areas so as to better tackle the haze.

Manage tensions in South China Sea

As for the South China Sea, Mr Lee said it had become a test of Asean unity and effectiveness.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have overlapping territorial claims with China in the area, and activities such as reclamation work as well as a military build-up in contested waters have drawn concern from members.

 

PM Lee said it was an important issue both for claimant and non-claimant states, as the South China Sea is a vital lifeline for trade, livelihoods, energy and free passage for all countries.

"We must affirm our commitment to the important principle of freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea," he said.

"Any miscalculations at sea could escalate into conflicts that threaten regional peace and stability."

PM Lee called on members to make faster progress on a binding Code of Conduct to manage tensions.

A Code is already being discussed among all 10 members and China, and while there has been some progress, it has been slow.

"We must continue to urge all parties to exercise maximum restraint, refrain from provocative actions or the use of force, and commit to accident prevention measures and the non-militarisation of land features in the South China Sea," he said.

Singapore is coordinating dialogue relations between Asean and China for the next three years, and Mr Lee said it would be a transparent and objective coordinator.

 

"We will work hard to make progress on this issue with your support," he added.

PM Lee also congratulated Myanmar on successfully convening its historic general election on Nov 8.

He also congratulated Malaysia for its able stewardship of Asean over the past year, and assured Laos of Singapore's full support for its chairmanship of the grouping next year.

"I look forward to working closely with all Asean members states to develop a successful and integrated Asean Community," he added.

He will also attend Asean's summits with China, India and the United States, as well as the Asean plus three summit with China, Japan and South Korea, on Saturday afternoon.

zakirh@sph.com.sg