Several Asean leaders yesterday stressed that openness to trade must remain a key priority and strategy for economic growth.
Their message comes as countries grapple with the impact of disruptive technology on jobs and a rising tide of protectionism globally.
Speaking at the opening plenary of the annual World Economic Forum on Asean, the leaders said countries can collaborate and ride on entrepreneurship and technology.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said further economic integration in Asean is an important condition for the Fourth Industrial Revolution "because it is about building networks, creating new synergies and staying connected". The Fourth Industrial Revolution refers to the current phase of global growth in which disruptive technologies and trends, such as robotics and artificial intelligence, are changing the way we live and work.
Asean members are working towards an economic blueprint that will let businesses operate more seamlessly across the region. They play a key role, PM Lee said, as the private sector - especially small and medium-sized enterprises - is the backbone of Asean economies and the source of entrepreneurship.
Asean, which Singapore chairs this year, is also working with like-minded partners to strengthen the open and rules-based multilateral trading system. "It is a system that has underpinned our growth and stability, but is under pressure, and even threat," said PM Lee.
This, he added, is why Asean is doing its utmost to make progress on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade deal with six of its key partners. "We hope to achieve a substantial conclusion by the end of the year, although this is not yet assured."
PM Lee also met Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and they agreed on the importance of bringing the RCEP to a substantive conclusion this year.
Speaking before PM Lee, Mr Phuc said Asean nations need to craft policies based not just on their own perspectives, but also those of the entire grouping. He suggested that the region could, among other things, start a network to link start-up incubators and provide single-rate mobile coverage across South-east Asia.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo added levity to the session when he cited characters from the superhero film Avengers: Infinity War - rogue titan Thanos and the Avengers who defeat him - to show how Asean members can, like the Avengers, uphold world order as the world lurches into a trade war.
"We are heading towards Infinity War," Mr Joko said to laughter.
"But rest assured, I and my fellow Avengers stand ready to prevent Thanos from wiping out half the world population," he added.
"Thanos is not any individual person, sorry to disappoint you. Thanos is the misguided belief that in order for us to succeed, others must surrender. He is the misperception that the rise of some necessarily means the decline of others."
In fact, Mr Joko said, economic growth in the era of technological disruption is not a zero-sum game, as technological progress creates greater efficiencies, allowing nations and industries to stretch resources. "As our economies develop, they are driven increasingly not by natural resources, which are limited, but by human talent, which is unlimited."
Chinese Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua said countries had to "categorically reject" trade protectionism. "Some countries' protectionist and unilateral measures are gravely undermining the rules-based multilateral trading regime, posing a most serious hazard to the world economy."
SEE TOP OF THE NEWS