At a time when globalisation and multilateral cooperation are under pressure, Asean and South Korea are taking the lead to swim against the tide as they see the benefits of greater connectivity, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
He said the progress made on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the resumption of Asean-Republic of Korea (ROK) air services agreement negotiations are a testament to both sides' commitment to closer ties. He called on them to strengthen the Asean-ROK Free Trade Area and collaborate in new areas such as smart cities, the digital economy and cyber security.
South Korea, the 10 Asean nations and four other countries - Australia, China, Japan and New Zealand - concluded text-based negotiations on all 20 chapters and market access issues of the mega trade pact earlier this month.
Hailing this as a "significant achievement", PM Lee urged all parties to see through RCEP's signing next year and implementation of the pact.
He expressed appreciation to South Korean President Moon Jae-in for being one of the pact's strongest supporters, saying: "I hope that all the RCEP participating countries will stay the course... It is crucial that we step up efforts to bring the RCEP across the finishing line."
Despite economic headwinds and waning faith in the benefits of globalisation, Asean and South Korea enjoy robust economic links and should continue to build on their strong fundamentals, PM Lee said yesterday at a plenary session of the Asean-ROK Commemorative Summit.
Strengthening the Asean-ROK Free Trade Area is a good step in this direction, he said. As Asean coordinator for the initiative, Singapore will work with all parties to further liberalise Sensitive Track products under the Asean-ROK Trade in Goods Agreement.
Member countries have agreed to progressively reduce tariffs on imported products on the Sensitive List, up to certain volumes.
South Korea is Asean's fifth largest trading partner and external source of foreign direct investment.
Stronger transport links can also be forged through the regional air services pact, PM Lee said.
With two-way tourism between Asean and South Korea having hit 10 million travellers in 2017, he expressed optimism that enhanced air links will boost this number to 15 million by next year. "I look forward to a more liberal and mutually beneficial agreement which will support links between our businesses and peoples."
Both sides can also collaborate in new areas such as smart cities, cyber security and infrastructure, PM Lee added, noting that South Korea is a partner of the new Asean-Singapore Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence. The centre will conduct research and provide training programmes for senior Asean officials. Announced last month, it will be ready in the second quarter of next year.
He also noted South Korean contractors' reputation for professionalism, efficiency and competitive pricing.
With many South Korean contractors supporting major infrastructure projects in South-east Asia, Singapore is happy to explore opportunities with South Korea through Infrastructure Asia, an outfit that partners stakeholders to develop, finance and implement bankable projects in the region, he said.
On smart cities, PM Lee observed that South Korea has high innovation density and its industries have valuable technological expertise.
This can fuel the region's smart cities capabilities and vision, he said, adding that there are synergies between the Masterplan on Asean Connectivity 2025 and Mr Moon's New Southern Policy, which seeks to elevate and deepen South Korea's ties with South-east Asia.
In addition to partnering on the Asean Smart Cities Network, South Korea also participated in the Singapore Fintech Festival and Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology earlier this month. "I hope that the discussions there will lead to fruitful partnerships between our companies, that will also connect the wider region more closely together," he said.
At their commemorative summit yesterday, the leaders reviewed achievements in the 30 years of Asean-ROK relations, set the bloc's direction of cooperation in the next 30 years, and discussed how to enhance connectivity towards prosperity and sustainability.
The leaders also attended events relating to start-ups and innovation, and exchanged views on issues relating to the Korean peninsula at a lunch retreat.