S’pore welcomes EU’s economic engagement, stronger security ties with Asean: PM Lee

PM Lee Hsien Loong (centre) greets European Council President Charles Michel (left) and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, during the Asean-EU summit in Brussels, on Dec 14, 2022. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

BRUSSELS - Singapore welcomes the European Union’s deepening economic engagement with Asean, and looks forward to stronger security ties between the two blocs as well, to contribute to the stability and security of South-east Asia, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

He was speaking to fellow leaders on Wednesday at the Asean-EU Commemorative Summit, which marks 45 years of dialogue between the two groupings.

PM Lee noted that while the EU is one of Asean’s key economic partners, the two regional groupings need to create conditions for their businesses to work together in forward-looking areas such as the digital and green economies.

“We should keep working towards our longer-term goal of an Asean-EU free trade agreement,” he added.

While there are longstanding differences between various parties to resolve, in the near term, Asean and the EU should build on areas of mutual interest, which can form pathways towards an eventual free trade agreement, he said.

Merchandise trade continues to grow, and in 2021, the EU was Asean’s second-largest source of foreign direct investment, said PM Lee, noting that there was great potential to do more.

At the summit’s opening on Wednesday, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said both regions could do more on energy and climate, and reinforce economic ties and trade.

She also announced plans for a €10 billion (S$14.34 billion) investment package for Asean countries till 2027, to meet the challenges of the green and digital transitions.

“If we want to link our zones of growth, we need to upgrade our economies; from clean energy to the digital infrastructure, from wind farms to solar power plants,” she added. “There is a lot of good work ahead of us for both Europe and South-east Asia.”

Beyond economic engagement, PM Lee also welcomed stronger security ties between the blocs as well as the EU’s interest and presence in Asia.

PM Lee also welcomed efforts to enhance connectivity and people-to-people ties, noting that the Asean-EU Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement – the world’s first bloc-to-bloc air transport agreement signed in Bali in October – will open up new markets and facilitate the flow of people.

The summit in Brussels caps a busy year for Asean, which has held several in-person meetings with its key partners following the lifting of Covid-19 measures in the region and worldwide.

PM Lee noted that the meeting took place at a time of grave geopolitical challenges, such as Russia’s attack on Ukraine that “flagrantly violates international law and the UN Charter”, as well as intensified strategic tensions between the United States and China.

The Russia-Ukraine war has also impacted global supply chains and deepened hostility between Russia and other states, especially the US and Nato countries, he added.

He noted that national security considerations are increasingly taking priority over economic cooperation, citing the semiconductor industry, where the US, EU and China have made moves to provide state assistance.

“I can understand why major powers are making such moves. But enormous state support for strategic investments disrupts the global trading system, and can also lead to a vicious cycle of action and reaction,” he said.

“This will not only dampen the spirit of win-win international economic cooperation, but itself become a source of mutual recrimination and tensions between countries.”

PM Lee called for countries to come together to support the World Trade Organisation and the rules-based multilateral system.

They could, for example, develop rules to set out limits on state intervention in strategic industries, and not let it become a “free for all” anarchy, he said. They could also continue to push to grow international trade and investment flows, from which all countries benefit, he added.

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