Asean, India can prioritise cooperation on digital transformation, public health: PM Lee

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (centre) taking part in the Asean-India Summit held in Brunei, on Oct 28, 2021. PHOTO: AFP/ASEAN SUMMIT 2021

SINGAPORE - Digital transformation and public health cooperation are priority areas Singapore is committed to pursuing as coordinator for Asean-India relations, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday (Oct 28).

Speaking on the last of three days of virtual meetings with leaders from across the region, PM Lee said the 10-nation Asean bloc could tap India's vibrant technology and start-up scene to grow and facilitate finance and trade in practical ways.

There is also much scope for collaboration on creating interoperable digital financial systems that are inclusive and present more opportunities for communities and businesses on both sides, he told his counterparts and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Asean-India summit.

On health, including Covid-19 vaccine provision and distribution, PM Lee pointed out that India plays a critical role in the global pharmaceutical supply chain.

Singapore, as an aviation and transhipment hub with robust cold chain capabilities, can support India as an effective vaccine transhipment point for South-east Asia and beyond, he added.

In an opening statement delivered in Singapore's capacity as country coordinator for Asean-India dialogue relations, PM Lee noted that to commemorate 30 years of ties, 2022 would be designated as a "Friendship Year" between the two parties.

"We can do much more together," he said.

On tackling the pandemic, PM Lee said Asean welcomes India's move to resume exports of safe and effective vaccines, including to the Covid-19 Vaccine Global Access (Covax) Facility.

The world's largest vaccine-maker stopped exports in April to focus on inoculating its own population as infections mounted.

Last month, India announced that with supplies increasing, it would start exporting vaccines again from October, prioritising worldwide sharing platform Covax.

Asean also values India's support for the bloc's principle of centrality, amid an evolving regional architecture, said PM Lee.

He added it was important to promote synergies between the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and India's own Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, to "enhance mutual trust, respect and benefit".

The Outlook is a 2019 document presenting a collective regional voice on security issues seen as a response to the Quad grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the United States.

On Wednesday, at the East Asia Summit involving Asean and eight external partners, Mr Modi reaffirmed India's focus on a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific.

On Thursday, Mr Modi noted that Covid-19 was a test of the India-Asean friendship, and both sides' mutual cooperation during this challenging time formed a base for goodwill between their peoples.

"History is a witness that India and Asean have had lively relations for thousands of years. It is reflected in our shared values, traditions, languages, scriptures, architecture, culture, food," he added.

"That is why the unity and centrality of Asean has always been a priority for India."

Mr Modi's Australian and Japanese counterparts had also reiterated their backing for regional stability and adherence to international law, among other assurances.

On Thursday, PM Lee said: "Asean remains committed to promoting a rules-based regional and international order by upholding international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea."

He added: "We reaffirm the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea, while underscoring the full and effective implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in its entirety."

The declaration was signed by Asean and China - which lays claim to much of the waterway - as a prelude to a legally binding final agreement that has yet to be concluded.

"We further reaffirm the need to pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law," said PM Lee.

He also emphasised Asean's commitment to a rules-based multilateral trading system.

"As key players in the global supply chain, Asean and India must ensure the continuity of our trade and investment flows while strengthening supply chain connectivity and resilience," he said, calling for intensified efforts to review the Asean-India Trade in Goods Agreement.

"The review is a crucial opportunity to liberalise trade and lower the barriers of entry for all our businesses."

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the 4th ASEAN-Russia Summit on Oct 28, 2021. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Asean and India must also push ahead on key cooperation areas such as smart cities, sustainable development, cyber security, climate change and environment issues, PM Lee added, noting that Singapore will co-host two workshops with India in early 2022 on combating marine pollution and illegal fishing.

He then expressed hope for India to continue supporting an Asean peace framework for Myanmar known as a "five-point consensus", under which ongoing hostilities must end and a special envoy is given access to initiate dialogue in a country in crisis since a February coup.

PM Lee welcomed India's in-kind contribution of medical supplies towards humanitarian assistance to the Myanmar people.

"Asean expresses our deep concern on the situation in Myanmar and calls for the immediate cessation of violence," he said.

"Asean continues to play a positive and constructive role in facilitating a peaceful solution in the interest of the people of Myanmar and of their livelihoods."

Later, during the Asean-Russia Summit attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin, PM Lee suggested three ways for Asean and Russia to advance their partnership.

In supporting the fight against Covid-19 in the region, Russia has developed and distributed its Sputnik V vaccine to countries in need.

Such efforts in vaccine multilateralism will boost Asean's post-pandemic recovery, enabling the reopening of economies and resumption of cross-border activities, said PM Lee.

Asean and Russia should also press on with regional economic integration, he added, noting the timely revision of a Trade and Investment Cooperation Roadmap in September this year, and extension of a Programme of Cooperation between Asean and the Eurasian Economic Commission until 2025.

Finally, cooperation in smart cities and digitalisation should be strengthened, said PM Lee.

"The pandemic accelerated the digital transformation of our societies," he added.

"We should continue to harness technology to facilitate the safe reopening of our economies and allow us to capitalise on new economic opportunities."

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