Asean countries yesterday pledged unanimously to uphold the multilateral, rules-based system that has enabled the region to prosper.
Their clear statement, agreed on by all 10 members as their foreign ministers met in Singapore, comes amid a rise in nationalist and protectionist sentiment globally.
There are also concerns of a trade war between the United States and China, and over countries opting to take unilateral tit-for-tat measures instead of talking when ties fray.
Against this backdrop, the joint communique of the Asean Fore-ign Ministers' Meeting said: "We reaffirmed our belief that re-gionalism and multilateralism are important principles and frameworks of cooperation."
It added: "Their strength and value lie in their inclusivity, rules-based nature and emphasis on mutual benefit and respect."
Singapore chairs Asean this year, and is hosting a series of meetings involving key partners, including the US, China and Russia, this week.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who opened the meetings, said it was important for Asean to press on with economic integration and support the multilateral trading system, which is under pressure. The grouping should also work with like-minded partners to deepen its web of cooperation, he added.
PM Lee cited how Asean countries are redoubling efforts to conclude the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which would be the world's largest trading bloc, by the end of the year. Asean is also working with the European Union on the Asean-EU Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement, the first substantive air deal between two major regional blocs.
Both pacts will "send a clear signal of Asean's commitment to trade liberalisation and economic integration", PM Lee said.
"I do not expect negotiations to be easy, especially with the growing mood of nationalism and protectionism in many countries.
"Every participant will have to make trade-offs and difficult compromises. But I am glad that Asean member states have taken a long-term approach and made a collective decision to stay on course, in order to bring tangible benefits to our peoples," he added.
PM Lee also called on members to make full use of technology to bring Asean closer, and prepare its people for the future. To this end, Singapore will step up efforts to help Asean's less-developed members bridge the gap by enhancing support for the Initiative for Asean Integration (IAI).
Its IAI centres in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos will be upgraded to Singapore Cooperation Centres to allow for expanded technical assistance and building capacity beyond the classroom, PM Lee said.
Yesterday, the Asean ministers met their counterparts from China, Japan, Russia and New Zealand, and witnessed Argentina and Iran formalise closer ties with the group by acceding to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South-east Asia.
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan also announced that Asean and China have agreed on a single text to negotiate a Code of Conduct to help manage tensions in the South China Sea. China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi welcomed this development.
Meetings with other partners are slated for today, before tomorrow's East Asia Summit foreign ministers' meeting and Asean Regional Forum. PM Lee said these open, inclusive and Asean-led structures have supported peace and stability, but the regional architecture must continue to be strengthened.
"We can all see the growing geopolitical uncertainties. At the same time, each Asean member state is subject to different pulls and pressures from bigger powers," said PM Lee. "In these circumstances, all the more we must stay united and strive to maintain our cohesion and effectiveness."
"That is the only way for Asean to remain relevant and be of value to our members as well as our external partners," he added.
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