Asean foreign ministers to meet in Singapore

The Asean Foreign Ministers' Retreat will be held at the JW Marriott Hotel Singapore South Beach from Feb 4-6, 2018. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Foreign ministers from all 10 Asean countries will meet in Singapore from Sunday (Feb 4) to Tuesday to discuss projects aimed at making the region more resilient and innovative.

They will also exchange views on regional and international developments, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Sunday.

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.

The 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 including the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar's northern state of Rakhine and tensions in the Korean peninsula.

Other ongoing issues include counter-terrorism and negotiations between Asean and China over a code of conduct in the South China Sea, which will begin in March.

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' meet traditionally lays the groundwork for the Asean Summits later in the year, when all 10 heads of state meet each other.

Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap, a research fellow at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, said the retreat is a chance for the host foreign minister to explain the chairman'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 between countries as well as cybersecurity in the region.

S Rajaratnam School of International Studies associate professor Alan Chong said that the foreign ministers' meeting is where the other Asean countries confirm their acceptance of Singapore's agenda during its time as chairman of Asean.

"Singapore has its wishlist as chairman, but this can only go forward if there is an Asean consensus. This meeting is about endorsing the Singapore wishlist," said Dr Chong.

At the meeting, the host country can also raise certain 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.

Indonesia and Malaysia have been particularly critical of the violence.

Dr Chong said that as chairman, Singapore will have to "delicately dance about the awkward situation of Myanmar".

He said: "Singapore will have to manage it carefully without sounding like it is endorsing the situation.

"This is Asean. Every country will have its sensitivities... The member you condemn today may well turn out to be the ally you need tomorrow.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.