MANILA - With anti-globalisation and protectionism sweeping the world, it is vital for Asean to press on with economic integration, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the 30th Asean Summit, the first in the grouping's golden jubilee year.
Speaking at the plenary of the meeting on Saturday (April 29), he urged his counterparts to support efforts to conclude a credible and high-quality Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes the 10 Asean countries and six others including China and Japan.
Pressing ahead with this region-wide trade agreement is one way of keeping Asean strong and relevant, said Mr Lee as he looked back at what the grouping has achieved in its 50 years and what more it has to do to secure its future.
He noted that Asean, which was founded in 1967, has created a peaceful and stable environment in the region that has allowed South-east Asian countries to thrive.
It has also fostered a culture of dialogue and cooperation among member nations, and provided a platform for other partners to participate in the development and growth of the region, he added.
He said: "We must safeguard Asean unity and Centrality, build our resilience, and maintain our relevance and value to both our own people and to our external partners."
One way to do so is to deepen integration of Asean economies, said Mr Lee.
Asean countries are growing faster as a group, almost twice as fast as the global average, and is enjoying demographic dividends of a young population and growing middle class.
Mr Lee said concluding the RCEP speedily with participating countries - Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea - will maximise benefits for Asean's businesses and peoples.
But rather than set a low bar, the agreement has to be credible and of a high quality, he added.
"Aseean must build on this and must not succumb to the wave of anti-globalisation and protectionism," he said. "(The RCEP) will be an important signal to demonstrate that the region remains economically vibrant, is open for business and is confident about our economic trajectory."
On the strategic front, it is also even more critical for to Asean to safeguard its unity and centrality, said Mr Lee.
This is especially so in today's uncertain geopolitical climate - marked by growing socio-economic and political divides both within and between countries, he added.
"A united Asean gives us a place on the international stage," he said, noting that that is why major powers engage with the 10-nation grouping.
"Individually, our influence is limited, but together, Asean has amplified our collective voice in the world. We cannot take for granted that Asean's value proposition will last indefinitely especially in today's uncertain regional and international strategic climate."