Asean must maintain its centrality, unity at a time of geopolitical flux: Retno

Indonesia's Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi believes Asean can remain in the driver's seat when it comes to matters affecting the region, as well as stay united. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Asean foreign ministers meeting this week reiterated the need to ensure the grouping's centrality and unity in a time of geopolitical flux.

And Indonesia's Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi believes Asean can remain in the driver's seat when it comes to matters affecting the region, as well as stay united.

But it must strengthen its role as a platform where members and outside powers can come together to discuss tough issues and work out solutions together, she told The Straits Times on Tuesday (Feb 6).

"One of the assets of Asean is that it will never become a threat to anyone, and Asean is always trying to develop what I call the 'habit of dialogue'," she said.

"We provide a platform even for the major powers to sit together and discuss any issue, regardless of whether the issue is sensitive."

"That habit of dialogue must be developed further," she added, stressing that respect for international law and a spirit of cooperation are also required.

Ms Retno was speaking to The Straits Times in an interview on the sidelines of the Asean Foreign Ministers' Retreat at the JW Marriott Hotel Singapore South Beach, where ministers from all 10 members discussed the grouping's priorities for the year as well as regional and international developments.

Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in a statement after the retreat that the ministers also discussed a proposal by Indonesia to further reinforce an open, transparent and inclusive regional architecture based on international law and principles dear to Asean - including settlement of disputes by peaceful means and renunciation of the threat or use of force.

They also agreed that Asean should "articulate its strategic vision amidst the changing geostrategic environment", and Asean leaders will further consider this vision at the 32nd Asean Summit in April.

"Indonesia supports the chairmanship of Singapore and we support the theme of resilience and innovation," said Ms Retno.

She noted that Asean, which turned 50 last year, has succeeded in creating an ecosystem for peace, stability and prosperity.

But there will be more, not fewer, challenges for the grouping in the next 50 years, she said, adding that she raised this with her counterparts at the closed-door retreat.

"So we have to first of all, maintain the centrality and unity of Asean, because if not we will be torn apart by the interests of the many other countries surrounding us," she said.

Asean, she noted, has survived for more than 50 years because it has been able to maintain its centrality - that is, remain in the driver's seat in its neighbourhood - and she is hopeful that it will continue to do so. "It is not easy but we can do it, we can do it," she added.

One key challenge has been keeping tensions in check in the South China Sea, where four members and China have overlapping claims.

Asean and China are set to start talks on a code of conduct (CoC) in the waters next month, an issue ministers discussed on Tuesday.

Ms Retno said she will raise the matter with her counterpart when she visits Beijing from Thursday to Saturday at the invitation of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

China is a key partner for Indonesia, and Jakarta hopes to strengthen bilateral relations with Beijing, she said.

"We will discuss the situation in our region, and I would like to also seek China's support for the negotiation of the CoC," said Ms Retno.

Indonesia is also seeking to be a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council for the 2019-2020 term, and Ms Retno said she thanked Asean members for their full support and requested that they campaign for Indonesia - which they agreed to.

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