Asean, US elevate ties to strategic partnership

ASEAN leaders at the ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Nov 21, 2015.
ASEAN leaders at the ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Nov 21, 2015. PHOTO: EPA

Singapore appreciates the United States' consistent support of Asean centrality as the regional architecture evolves, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

"We count on the US to maintain its focus on the region, despite many other preoccupations around the world, and to continue to exercise a large and benign influence on our region for many years to come."

His remarks come as Asean leaders and US President Barack Obama formally elevated the status of their relationship to a strategic partnership.

"We are committed to a rules-based approach in Asia, respect for international law and the peaceful resolution of disputes," they said in a joint statement. "We recognise the important role we have each played, and that we have played together, in maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region."

Mr Obama spoke on the broad nature of Asean-US ties, including climate change and ensuring stability in the South China Sea.

Mr Lee highlighted three themes both sides could focus on.

One, they could work closer in dealing with transnational challenges such as human trafficking, climate change and the haze.

"We have a shared responsibility in ensuring (a) sustainable environment, as well as clean air and water for our future generations," he said.

And this year's unprecedented severe haze was "a sobering reminder" as many suffered. He thanked the US for its efforts to help fight forest fires, and said both sides should work together to address the fundamental causes of the haze.

Two, Asean-US cooperation beyond political and security issues should be enhanced, such as in high-quality investments in Asean.

"It has been a tremendous benefit for us in terms of job creation, technology transfer and capacity building, and to the US companies too, in terms of profits, geographical spread and diversification," he said.

"I look forward to the US Congress ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to send a clear and powerful message that the US is a Pacific power and here to stay."

Three, the US should sustain its engagement of Asean and contribute to regional peace and stability.

Mr Lee said he appreciated the US' constructive role in the South China Sea issue and advocacy for respect for international law.

"We strongly support the fundamental rights of freedom of navigation and overflight, and other internationally lawful uses of the air and sea related to these freedoms in the global commons," he said.

Mr Obama told the Asean leaders: "For the sake of regional stability, the claimants should halt reclamation, construction and militarisation of disputed areas."

It was a key point in the joint statement Asean and the US issued. "We also reaffirm the importance of maintaining peace and stability, ensuring maritime security and safety, and freedom of navigation, including in and overflight above the South China Sea," they said.

"We support Asean-China ongoing efforts to fully and effectively implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in its entirety, and to work towards the expeditious conclusion of an effective Code of Conduct."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 22, 2015, with the headline 'Asean, US elevate ties to strategic partnership'. Print Edition | Subscribe