SINGAPORE - Asean has to get used to new internal dynamics as each member - to a different degree - feels the influence of burgeoning powers in the region, especially China and India, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (March 13).
But these "tidal pulls" must not lead to a divided Asean, he said.
"We must accept the reality of these tidal pulls, without allowing them to lead to fault lines forming within the Asean group," said PM Lee.
New powers especially China and India are growing in strength and influence, creating new opportunities in the region, he noted. "Countries have to take into account the policies and interests of new powers, while maintaining their traditional political and economic ties."
At the same time, while the political mood in the United States has changed, Asean nations hope that the superpower - still the region's security anchor and the world's biggest economy - remains active especially in South-east Asia.
"In this shifting environment, it is important that Asean works actively to maintain its centrality and relevance," the Prime Minister told about 500 people including academics, diplomats and students at the Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute 50th Anniversary lecture.
There is nothing to prevent other competing groupings or regional cooperation projects - such as the China's Belt and Road Initiative and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy - from being launched, he noted.
"Amid this Darwinian process, Asean members must come together to maintain Asean's relevance and cohesion."
Thus, while each Asean member has its own domestic issues and politics to manage, maintaining a unified front is key, said PM Lee. He called on governments to invest political capital in the wider Asean project and make a conscious effort to think regionally, not just nationally.
For example, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which comprises Asean and its six free trade agreement partners, and the Asean-European Union Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement will involve significant trade-offs and compromises, he said.
"But I hope governments will take a long-term approach, assess their enlightened self-interests, and make bold decisions which will improve our people's lives," he said, adding that this is what has brought Asean to where it is today.
Tackling an often-cited criticism of the Asean decision-making process - which is built on consensus, PM Lee acknowledged that it can be slow and unwieldy.
But while tedious, it has its merits.
"Asean, once it has arrived at a decision, does not change its position lightly. External partners therefore see value in deepening their engagement of the region through Asean," he said.
Singapore, which is chairing Asean this year, will do its best to take the group forward through initiating projects to strengthen the group's collective resilience against common threats such as terrorism, cyber crime, and climate change, said PM Lee. At the same time, it will focus on helping Asean economies to innovate and use technology.
Also at the lecture at Orchard Hotel was Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.
Iseas Board of Trustees chairman Wang Gungwu said in his opening remarks that it is certain that the next decade will bring momentous changes in the region, within and between neighbouring countries.
"We also know that new trends such as anti-globalisation, nationalism, as well as increased major power rivalry together may imperil our stability and economic success and undermine Asean's centrality as an organisation," he said, adding that the institute will study these changes and contribute to understanding these issues more deeply.
After the lecture, PM Lee will be touring a new exhibition on the 50-year history of Iseas, which was started in 1968 as the brainchild of former deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee. The exhibition will be displayed at the Iseas library at 30, Heng Mui Keng Terrace, from Wednesday.