Asean has achieved much this year: Vivian

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan talks about Singapore's relations with China, the South China sea dispute, and launching the Smart Cities Network pilot project.
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan expects a very packed and intense week as Singapore hosts its final key event as Asean chairman.
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan expects a very packed and intense week as Singapore hosts its final key event as Asean chairman.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Progress in economic integration, code of conduct and smart cities

As Singapore gets ready to host its final key event as Asean chairman this week, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said the grouping has achieved far more this year than he had dared to anticipate.

It has made headway not just in integrating the region's economies, but also in upholding a multilateral rules-based order and tapping digital technology to prepare its people for the future - in line with the themes of innovation and resilience that the Republic had identified for its chairmanship year, he said in an update to Singapore media last Friday.

Dr Balakrishnan noted that on the economic front, Asean members and six partners have made significant progress on what would be the world's largest free trade area at a time when there is pushback against globalisation and free trade around the world.

Leaders of all 16 countries negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will be in town for the Asean Summit, and they will attempt to reach a breakthrough on deadlocked areas at a meeting on the trade pact.

Aside from the 10 Asean members, Australia, China, India, South Korea, New Zealand and Japan are negotiating the RCEP. Also in Singapore are leaders from Russia, the United States, Canada and Chile.

"It's going to be a very, very packed, intensive few days," Dr Balakrishnan said.

This year, the grouping also endorsed an agreement on e-commerce, put into effect the Asean Single Window and signed the Asean self-certification scheme - all of which aim to expand opportunities for the region's businesses and facilitate the movement of goods and services across borders.

As part of its efforts to uphold a multilateral rules-based world order, Asean also managed to make progress on a Code of Conduct to manage tensions in the South China Sea.

 

Members and China agreed on a single draft text on which to negotiate the code. "This doesn't mean it's all done but, nevertheless, it provides a good basis on which future negotiations can proceed," Dr Balakrishnan said.

"More importantly, it lowers temperatures, calms the waters, and I think the situation in the South China Sea is certainly much better than the years preceding this year," he added.

And while he was unwilling to put a specific timeframe to conclude the code, he said it was more important to keep channels open, build confidence and trust, and allow all parties to resolve differences and move forward. Good progress has been made thus far, he added.

Members of the regional grouping also finalised the text of a model extradition treaty, which will have to be built upon, launched the Asean Law Academy and initiated a framework to strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation in "resilience, response and recovery".

These, the minister said, show the grouping's adherence to a rules-based world order, the need for cooperation and mutual respect and that "a lot more can be done by negotiations and working proactively rather than competing or by raising the temperatures".

As for preparing South-east Asia to seize opportunities afforded by the digital revolution, one of the Republic's key projects as Asean chairman is the Asean Smart Cities Network.

Dr Balakrishnan noted that the regional grouping has identified 26 pilot cities, and their officials have had chances to meet, exchange plans and ideas, and create a platform through which the private sector and external partners can look for opportunities for their products and services to be rolled out across South-east Asia.

"Even as we move on and we hand over the chairmanship to Thailand, we probably will still continue to act as a shepherd for this concept and continue to act as a facilitator for efforts in smart cities development across South-east Asia," Dr Balakrishnan said.

Singapore has also embarked on efforts to engage youth on Asean, from an e-sports competition and music festival to renewing a fund for youth projects in Asean and starting an Asean Youth Fellowship - to help build an Asean identity.

One key challenge for the grouping this year was the exodus of over 700,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar's Rakhine State following a military crackdown last year.

Dr Balakrishnan acknowledged that this was "one of the clouds that have been hanging over Asean over the past one year".

But, he added: "At every Asean meeting that we have had, Myanmar has taken pains to explain the situation to us, update us on their plans and to reassure us that they were doing their best to resolve the situation."

Last week, Dr Balakrishnan visited refugee camps in Bangladesh and met Myanmar's leaders to discuss the issue.

He noted that both Bangladesh and Myanmar have announced publicly and said in private conversations that there is real commitment on their part to begin the process of repatriation.

"In our discussions, we emphasised that the key thing when you begin the repatriation is to ensure that it is voluntary, that it is safe, and that it is dignified," he said.

"We hope that it can be done and it will be done soon. Asean collectively will support Myanmar and Bangladesh in whatever way possible to enhance the safety and the long-term opportunities, both for the returning refugees as well as the local communities within Rakhine State."

The minister added that the situation requires long-term political and economic solutions as well.

"Regardless of which community they belong to, people are looking for jobs, good jobs and better prospects for their children, and when we can secure peace, stability and reconciliation across both communities, I believe investments will flow, opportunities will be created and they can get on a virtuous cycle of development," he said.

"What I would say from my interaction so far is that I've seen glimmers of hope," he added.

Summing up Singapore's Asean chairmanship, Dr Balakrishnan said it has been a "very, very busy year", with no shortage of challenges.

But, he added: "The fact that we've been able to do so much together with our Asean partners shows that as long as we continue to build our strategic trust, mutual confidence, (and have) open, coherent and consistent communications, we can do a lot together.

"I'm more convinced than ever that Asean is relevant, that we've been able to maintain Asean centrality, Asean unity despite some very significant existential and strategic challenges, and this gives me hope for the future."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 11, 2018, with the headline 'Asean has achieved much this year: Vivian'. Print Edition | Subscribe