Asean needs to maintain and strengthen its centrality and redouble integration efforts, in order to be a viable and attractive economic partner, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said yesterday.
Coherence, commitment, confidence and consistency are key ingredients to achieving Asean centrality, he said in his opening remarks at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs' (SIIA) 12th Asean and Asia Forum at Mandarin Oriental hotel.
The principle of centrality goes beyond geography to include Asean's central role in engaging major powers and maintaining the region's security and prosperity.
Mr Chan, in addressing the forum's theme of "The Sino-American Conflict And Asean: Surviving, Transforming, Succeeding", said that despite geopolitical volatility and global fragmentation, it is important for Asean countries to resist populist policies and pressures.
He cited non-tariff barriers as one example of a complex issue requiring political will to tackle.
These barriers, which restrict the import or export of goods or services through measures such as quotas and licensing requirements, had trebled in the region in the last 15 years.
"Countries will need to deepen the non-tangible aspects of connectivity - data, finance, technology, talent and regulations," he said.
"These will become, if they have not already, more important than the physical aspects of connectivity."
He highlighted the need to align standards and regulations in areas such as food, medicine and intellectual property, to enhance Asean's value proposition and competitiveness in a knowledge-based, innovation-driven world.
The minister added that Asean is leading the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations. "The RCEP is a strategic signal to the rest of the world that this part of Asia continues to believe in upholding a multilateral trading order."
When signed, the RCEP, comprising the 10 Asean members and six of its free trade agreement partners - China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India - will be the world's biggest regional trade agreement.
In a wide-ranging dialogue moderated by SIIA chairman Simon Tay, Mr Chan told the 200 experts, business leaders and officials gathered that the consequences of prolonged trade and technology conflict between the US and China could be serious.
"The world will become a much poorer place if we fragment supply chains and distribution systems, with different regional blocs having different technical standards."
The consequences, he added, go beyond the two big powers. "Already there are many hot spots - the World Trade Organisation (WTO) system faces challenges by the end of this year, if the appellate body issue is not resolved. It can result in a domino effect and cause other systems to fray."
Mr Chan was referring to the crisis involving the WTO's highest court of appeal. The US is blocking appointments of judges to fill vacancies, preventing it from hearing new appeals and impairing the WTO dispute settlement system.
Responding to an audience member's question on protests in Hong Kong, he said the territory had to resolve this on its own, without external parties adding to the chorus of public opinion. He said: "What happens in Hong Kong can also happen in Singapore if we don't get our fundamentals right."
Sounding an optimistic note, Mr Chan said a united Asean could manage challenges, provided it can band together, tackle tough integration issues and leverage new growth areas.