BUSAN - At a time when globalisation and multilateral cooperation are under pressure, Asean and South Korea are taking the lead to push back 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, 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. With a combined 29 per cent share of world GDP, RCEP is on a par with the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) and larger than the European Union.
Hailing this as a "significant achievement", PM Lee urged all parties to see through the signing next year and the 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 at a plenary session of the Asean-ROK Commemorative Summit marking their 30th year of dialogue relations.
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.
Tariff lines in the agreement are classified under various tracks, and tariff rates for products on the Sensitive Track will be reduced according to schedules.
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 amounting to 10 million travellers in 2017, he expressed optimism that enhanced air links will boost this number to 15 million by 2020. "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, he added, noting that South Korea is a partner of the new Asean-Singapore Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence.
The centre will conduct research and provide capacity-building programmes for senior Asean officials. Announced in October, it will be ready in the second quarter of 2020.
He also praised South Korean contractors for their professionalism, efficiency and competitive pricing.
With many 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," PM Lee said.
At their commemorative summit on Tuesday (Nov 26), Mr Moon and the Asean leaders reviewed the bloc's achievements in the past 30 years, set the direction of cooperation in the next 30 years, and discussed how to enhance connectivity towards prosperity and sustainability.
Both sides agreed to build a "people-centred community of peace and prosperity".
"(The two sides will) promote and facilitate dialogue and cooperation, including through Asean-led mechanisms, to support complete denuclearisation and the establishment of permanent peace on the Korean peninsula in a peaceful manner," said their joint vision statement.
Besides enhancing cooperation in security, both sides also agreed to promote economic cooperation for shared prosperity, especially in terms of trade and investment, connectivity, micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as start-up partnerships and innovation in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Speaking at the start of the plenary sessions, Mr Moon said: "We are confronted with new challenges such as protectionism, transnational crimes and the Fourth Industrial Revolution."
He added: "Only our cooperation and solidarity can overcome the challenges."
On Tuesday, the leaders also attended events relating to start-ups and innovation, and will be exchanging views on regional issues at a lunch retreat.
The previous two commemorative summits were held in Jeju and Busan, in 2009 and 2014.
Last week in Seoul, PM Lee met Mr Moon, who also hosted him to an official lunch. The two leaders witnessed the signing and exchange of cooperation pacts in standards and conformance, manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, smart cities and cyber cooperation.
PM Lee, who arrived in Busan on Sunday, leaves on Wednesday.