Asean has invested in its next generation and worked on building a more secure region this year, but much more remains to be done, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday as Singapore handed the role of chairman to Thailand.
At a media conference wrapping up this week's summits, PM Lee outlined some of Asean's key achievements this year, and said Singapore will continue to help shepherd the flagship Asean Smart Cities Network and work closely with subsequent chairs to enhance it and increase the number of participating cities.
By the time Singapore next chairs the group in 2028, Asean will likely be the world's fourth-largest economy, he noted, adding that while prospects are bright overall, there are challenges to be overcome.
"The free, open and rules-based multilateral order which has underpinned Asean's growth and stability is fraying, and big power competition is pulling Asean member states in different directions," he said.
"At the same time we are also facing non-traditional transnational issues such as digital technologies and climate change, and these require closer cooperation."
In the face of such challenges, PM Lee outlined three targets he hoped Asean would achieve in the next decade: Deeper economic integration, enhanced unity so as to more effectively engage its major partners, and populations equipped with skills needed for new jobs in the digital economy.
To achieve these broad goals, Asean will need to comprehensively lower trade barriers and significantly increase trade with each other, he said.
"Also, we need, urgently, massive infrastructure investments in connectivity and productive capacity over the next 10 years in many of the Asean countries, and economic integration will help that happen," he added.
Strengthening its centrality and unity is key, PM Lee said, because as Asean becomes more cohesive, it can engage its partners in a coherent way and it would be worth their while to do business with Asean.
As for training its people, PM Lee said Asean should take advantage of the digital revolution to ensure the interoperability of digital systems within the region - that is, the digital systems developed in one country can be used in others too.
"Many countries are going to introduce these systems - it could be e-cash, government systems or data rules - and the more we can harmonise and bring them in line with one another, the more we can operate across borders and have a more integrated economy," he said.
Recapping the highlights of this week's summits, PM Lee noted the substantial progress on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade deal and the strong political commitment to conclude negotiations next year.
Leaders also expressed support for efforts towards the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, and discussed the South China Sea as well as the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar's Rakhine State.
Myanmar has invited the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management to facilitate the repatriation of Rohingya refugees.
"Asean is ready to play an active and positive role... and will support efforts by all parties to work towards a comprehensive and durable solution," PM Lee said.
At the summit's closing ceremony, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said Thailand would work on enhancing connectivity and sustainable development.
He called on members to "collaborate even more closely". But growing economic cooperation must also come with "due consideration to balance and benefits for the people", he added, pledging to help enhance Asean's role in tackling global issues like climate change.
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