US pledge that Aukus will reinforce Asean peace, stability a welcome one: PM Lee

US President Joe Biden attending a virtual US-Asean summit from the White House on Oct 26, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

SINGAPORE - Singapore welcomes the United States' assurances that its recent trilateral defence pact with Australia and Britain will support Asean centrality and contribute to regional peace and stability, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (Oct 26).

He also welcomed the US' announcement of US$102 million (S$137 million) in new initiatives to expand its partnership with Asean, with the funds going into health, climate, economic and education programmes.

PM Lee was addressing a virtual US-Asean summit attended by regional leaders and US President Joe Biden - the first time in four years that Washington was sending its highest level representation to meet the South-east Asian bloc.

This comes on the heels of the Biden administration dispatching a bevy of senior officials to Asean member states, with Vice-President Kamala Harris most recently paying visits to Singapore and Vietnam in August.

But parts of the region were up in arms the next month, when the US unveiled a deal with Britain to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.

Indonesia and Malaysia, namely, have cited strong reservations over the potential for "power projection". In turn, the US ambassador in Jakarta affirmed that the three allies fully respect Asean centrality, and that the pact, known as Aukus, poses no threat to regional stability and is not aimed at any one country.

Aukus is largely seen as a counter to Chinese militarisation in South-east Asia and the South China Sea in particular, which Beijing claims sovereignty over.

On Tuesday, PM Lee described the US as having contributed significantly over the decades to the region's security and stability, leading to peace and prosperity for many countries.

"In particular, the region benefitted from US-led counter-terrorism efforts," he said, pointing to how American intervention in Afghanistan had helped prevent acts of terrorism around the world, including in South-east Asia.

After close to two decades, US troops began pulling out from Afghanistan in May this year, culminating in distressing scenes in August as Taliban militants seized the capital Kabul and locals swarmed the airport in desperate hope of fleeing.

Singapore lent support by deploying a Multi-Role Tanker Transport aircraft to assist in evacuating about 2,200 personnel from Qatar to Germany, said PM Lee.

In his speech, he expressed how Singapore was "gravely concerned" about the ongoing violence in Myanmar, which remains in the throes of crackdowns and protests since its civilian government was overthrown by the military in February.

"We continue to call for the immediate release of all political detainees, including President Win Myint, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, and US national Danny Fenster," said PM Lee.

Mr Fenster, a journalist, has been held since May for allegedly encouraging dissent against the military.

"We are disappointed by the lack of tangible progress," PM Lee added, referring to the implementation of a "five-point consensus" agreed upon in April for Myanmar to end hostilities, initiate dialogue, allow humanitarian support and grant a special envoy full access in the country.

Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing's failure to fulfil these points led to him being sidelined from this week's Asean summits, in a rare move by a grouping known for its principle of non-interference.

PM Lee also thanked the US for contributing an additional US$180 million in humanitarian assistance for those affected by Myanmar's Rakhine state and Rohingya refugee crisis, which remains unresolved more than four years after hundreds of thousands were killed or exiled in a horrific ethnic cleansing operation by the military.

At Tuesday's summit, which capped the first of three days of meetings, PM Lee also noted that the US was Asean's largest source of foreign direct investment last year, with investments amounting to nearly US$35 billion.

The US has also delivered over 30 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to the region, contributed US$500,000 to an Asean pandemic response fund, and established the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention's South-east Asia regional office in Hanoi.

"Going forward, Asean and the US should expand our partnership to non-traditional domains, including digital infrastructure, cyber security and climate change," said PM Lee.

With Asean's digital economy projected to reach US$200 billion by 2025, the time is ripe for a technological revolution, with promising opportunities for both American and regional companies to work together to ride the wave, he added.

"At the same time, there is much that we can do to collaborate and develop green and sustainable economies," he said.

PM Lee acknowledged Mr Biden's convening of a virtual climate summit with world leaders in April, and said he was looking forward to exchanging views on climate action at the United Nations conference, COP26, next week.

The talks in Glasgow from Oct 31 to Nov 12 have been billed as the world's last best chance to cap global warming at the 1.5 to 2 deg C threshold set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement, which called on nations to take progressive action to reduce their carbon footprint.

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