Asean can be resilient by staying united, says Vivian

Finding balance between national interests of members and unity of bloc is key, he says

Asean can weather the ongoing drastic changes in the global environment if its members strike the right balance between promoting their national interests and staying united as a group, said Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.

In remarks to his counterparts as they begin three days of meetings on regional concerns, he sketched a raft of challenges they face, from trade wars to disruption.

Veteran United States diplomat Henry Kissinger had declared this a "very, very grave period for the world", Dr Balakrishnan noted, adding that the drastic changes are why Singapore, in its current term as Asean chair, is pushing for a "resilient and innovative" Asean.

He said that while Asean has made great strides since its formation, it must stay the course and remain united.

"We need to find the right balance between hanging on to our foundational principles and at the same time transforming our societies for the future. We need to find the right balance between promoting our national interests and yet safeguarding our regional unity," he added.

"And if we can find this balance, we can make common cause and despite the fact that this may be a very, very grave period, we should also be in a position to seize the many opportunities that lie ahead of us."

In a demonstration of the very unity Dr Balakrishnan spoke of, leaders from the 10 Asean nations reached an agreement on a joint communique well ahead of time.

"That doesn't mean negotiations were easy. You have got 10 different countries. Very diverse. Different perspectives... but we have arrived at a statement we believe accurately reflects the consensus position of all 10 Asean countries," he told reporters.

The communique tackles wide-ranging issues such as terrorism, environmental woes like the transboundary haze, innovation and the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

Among other things, Asean's leaders reaffirmed their belief in the role of free trade and the need to strengthen an Asean-centric regional architecture that is open, transparent, inclusive and rules-based.

Following a briefing on Indonesia's take on the Indo-Pacific, the communique said Asean leaders looked forward to further discussion on the concept, "which embraces key principles such as Asean centrality, openness, transparency, inclusivity and rules-based approach, while contributing to mutual trust, mutual respect and mutual benefit".

Dr Balakrishnan noted that cyber security was also a concern.

"Without addressing security, we cannot reliably harvest the opportunities that the digital revolution will provide for us," he noted.

Asean's approach to cyber-security cooperation is inclusive, he said, noting that with today's technology, cyber-security threats can pop up in any part of the world.

Therefore, it is important to team up with many partners "to expand our reservoir of technical competence as well as intelligence and operational capability", he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 03, 2018, with the headline 'Asean can be resilient by staying united, says Vivian'. Print Edition | Subscribe