Asean foreign ministers gather in Singapore for talks

Asean foreign ministers in a photo posted by Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan on his Facebook page on Dec 19, 2016. PHOTO: FACEBOOK/VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN

Foreign ministers from all 10 Asean countries are in Singapore to discuss projects aimed at making the region more resilient and innovative.

During the three-day meeting, which started yesterday, they will also exchange views on regional and international developments, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said in a statement.

The Asean Foreign Ministers' Retreat, held at the JW Marriott Hotel Singapore South Beach, is the first major meeting of Asean leaders in Singapore this year.

Singapore, which is chairing Asean this year, is keen to develop a network of smart cities across Asean and push for more economic integration in the region.

MFA said: "Following Asean's 50th anniversary milestone last year, the retreat will be a useful and timely opportunity for the foreign ministers to discuss the way forward for the Asean community."

The leaders are also likely to discuss hot topics such as the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar's Rakhine state and tensions in the Korean peninsula. Other issues include counter-terrorism and negotiations between Asean and China over a code of conduct in the South China Sea, to begin next month.

The Straits Times understands that Singapore will strive to keep the meeting informal, with a round of golf on the cards.

Asean watchers said the foreign ministers' meeting traditionally lays the groundwork for the Asean summits later in the year, when all 10 heads of state meet each other.

Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap, research fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, said the retreat is a chance for the host foreign minister to explain the chair's theme for Asean and its proposed priorities for the year. Singapore has laid out its twin goals of making Asean and the region more resilient and innovative, and wants to improve digital connectivity among countries as well as cyber security in the region.

S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies associate professor Alan Chong said the meeting is where the other Asean countries confirm their acceptance of Singapore's agenda during its time as Asean chair. "Singapore has its wish list as chairman, but this can only go forward if there is an Asean consensus. This meeting is about endorsing the Singapore wish list."

At the meeting, the host country can also raise more sensitive and pressing issues for informal discussion. "Such discussion can help improve mutual understanding, or at least it can help make clear where each member government stands," said Dr Termsak, who was with the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta from 1993 to 2012.

One issue certain to be on the agenda is how, since last August, nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar's Rakhine state amid a military crackdown.

As Asean chair, Singapore will have to "delicately dance about the awkward situation of Myanmar", said Dr Chong. "Singapore will have to manage it carefully without sounding like it is endorsing the situation," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 05, 2018, with the headline Asean foreign ministers gather in Singapore for talks. Subscribe