SINGAPORE - The gradual resumption of travel will enable economic recovery and spur confidence in businesses in South-east Asia, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Saturday (Nov 14), as he urged countries to lift restrictions on Asean states.
Speaking at the virtual 23rd Asean Plus Three (APT) Summit between the regional bloc and China, Japan and South Korea, PM Lee emphasised the need to resume essential travel safely between countries.
He noted that Singapore has bilateral green lane arrangements with some Asean member states and the three East Asian countries to facilitate essential travel.
“Eventually, we look forward to resuming safe and smooth travel within the region. This will strengthen our people-to-people ties and give our economies a much needed boost,” said PM Lee.
In separate meetings with Australia and New Zealand, he said the Republic has lifted border restrictions to allow visitors from the two countries, and hopes they will do the same soon.
He added that the two countries and Asean should work towards “progressively and safely lifting travel restrictions”, as the Covid-19 situation stabilises and economies get back on track.
“The reopening of our borders in a safe and calibrated manner will facilitate the resumption of economic activity, and is an important confidence marker for our peoples and businesses,” he said during the second Asean-Australia Biennial Summit.
In his speeches, PM Lee also called for cooperation in the development and supply of Covid-19 vaccines, and in economic recovery by upholding a rules-based system with open supply chains.
Closer cooperation by Asean Plus Three
During the meeting with China, Japan and South Korea, he noted that the APT bloc’s long record of cooperation in public health emergencies began with the SARS outbreak in 2003.
The three countries were among the first to support Asean during the Covid-19 crisis, such as contributing over US$60 million (S$81 million) to the Covid-19 Asean Response Fund.
PM Lee said discussions are underway to create an APT reserve of essential medical supplies, building upon the Asean Regional Reserve of Medical Supplies.
He noted that the APT is also working to address the economic fallout from the pandemic, with economic ministers adopting a joint statement and finalising an action plan.
On Saturday, the grouping also adopted a leaders’ statement on strengthening APT cooperation for economic and financial resilience in the face of emerging challenges.
Equitable & sustainable supply of vaccines
To enable a new normal to emerge from the pandemic, PM Lee said countries have to work together to ensure “an equitable, effective and sustainable supply of treatments and vaccines”.
He noted that Singapore, Australia and New Zealand support “vaccine multilateralism” and are Friends of the Covax Facility.
The Covax, or Covid-19 Vaccine Global Access, scheme aims to provide Covid-19 vaccines for the 76 countries involved, and 92 other poorer countries supported under the scheme.
“We should complement that with cooperation in vaccine research and development, and by building up our vaccine manufacturing capacities to support regional demand,” said PM Lee during the Asean-New Zealand Leaders Summit.
Rules-based system with open supply chains
On economic recovery, PM Lee reaffirmed Singapore’s commitment to abide by “a free, open and rules-based multilateral trading system and maintain supply chain connectivity”, and cited Sunday’s (Nov 15) signing of the 15-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership as a major step forward.
He also cited the joint ministerial statement issued by Singapore and New Zealand on March 20 which affirmed commitment to ensuring supply chain connectivity amid the pandemic, and said that more countries, including Asean member states, have since supported the statement.
PM Lee called for all parties to press on with the General Review of the Asean-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (FTA), the most comprehensive FTA Asean has concluded to date and which can be “a pathfinder for future FTAs”.
In the meeting with China, Japan and South Korea, PM Lee called for the use of regional platforms to strengthen cooperation, such as the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralisation to improve market confidence and financial stability in this region, and the Asean Smart Cities Network to discuss the use of technology in fighting Covid-19.
Australia’s A$500 million support for South-east asia, Pacific
During the second Asean-Australia Biennial Summit, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that Australia is committing around A$500 million (S$489 million) over three years to support access to safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines for South-east Asia and the Pacific.
“The support that this provides gives us all, and particularly throughout the region, new choices based on health and science and the best health and science, and reflects our shared stake in your recovery,” he said.
As part of the package, A$21 million will go to the recently launched Asean Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases. Another A$70 million will go to the new Resilience and Recovery in South-east Asia initiative, to address Asean’s priorities such as maritime, connectivity, sustainable development and economic cooperation.
Another A$232 million is meant for a new initiative to develop the Mekong region, focusing on the environment, infrastructure, cyber and critical technologies, and scholarships.
Asean and Australia have been strategic partners since 2014, and have completed all the action lines in the first Asean-Australia Strategic Partnership Plan of Action which ended in 2018, PM Lee said during the meeting.
“Now that we are facing the common scourge of Covid-19, Australia has been a reliable partner. Our officials and ministers have been in close touch throughout the year, including through the Special Asean-Australia Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Covid-19 convened in June.”
He added that Australia has supported Asean’s pandemic response and recovery plans, such as by contributing to the Covid-19 Asean Response Fund, other initiatives in health security, economic recovery and stability, and through the Asean-Australia Development Cooperation Programme Phase II.
Asean’s strong partnership with New Zealand
During the meeting with New Zealand, PM Lee also congratulated Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for her “resounding victory” in the recent general election.
Her Labour Party won the Oct 17 election with the biggest victory in half a century, gaining an outright majority in Parliament.
“New Zealand and Asean share a strong legacy of working together to advance peace and prosperity in our region,” said Ms Ardern, adding that the regional bloc is her country’s fourth largest trading partner and crucial defence and security partner.
“Our partnership will play an important role as our countries work together to support global efforts to manage the pandemic and ensure fair and equitable access to safe vaccines, and drive economic recovery through maintaining open markets for our exporters and resilient supply chains.”
In his speech, PM Lee said the Asean-New Zealand relationship has progressed steadily over the past 45 years. The two have been strategic partners since 2015. They have successfully implemented all action lines in the Asean-New Zealand Plan of Action of 2016 to 2020, and have finalised the Plan of Action for the next five years.