SINGAPORE: ASEAN’s overall prospects are “promising” and the 10-member grouping could collectively be the world’s fourth largest economy by 2030, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Thursday (Nov 15).
But, there are several challenges the regional bloc has to confront, he told reporters at a press conference following the close of the 33rd ASEAN Summit.
Mr Lee pointed out that the free and open, rules-based multilateral order that has underpinned the 10-member regional grouping’s growth and stability is fraying, and "big power competition" is pulling member states in different directions.
Furthermore, there are non-traditional, transnational issues such as digital technologies and climate change, and these require “closer cooperation”, he added.
Asked where he hopes to see ASEAN in a decade’s time, Mr Lee outlined three broad goals: To accelerate current economic integration, enhance ASEAN centrality and unity, and equip ASEAN’s people with the skills needed for new jobs in the digital economy.
THREE BROAD GOALS FOR ASEAN IN THE FUTURE
On the first goal, Mr Lee said that in view of the rapid growth of the middle class in the region, it is necessary to increase intra-ASEAN trade significantly and comprehensively lower trade barriers.
“Massive infrastructure investments” in connectivity and productive capacity are also needed urgently over the next 10 years in many of the ASEAN countries, he said, adding that economic integration would help that happen.
On enhancing ASEAN centrality and unity, Mr Lee said that doing this will enable the grouping to continue to engage in an “open and inclusive rules-based system” with all its major strategic and economic partners, and on the basis of win-win outcomes rather than zero-sum games and rival causes.
“In other words, over the next 10 years, ASEAN becomes more cohesive and united, and therefore you can be in a central position and play that role effectively, engage your partners in a coherent way and it’s worth your partners’ while to do business with you,” he said.
Thirdly, Mr Lee asserted the need to weather and take advantage of the digital revolution, so as to ensure the interoperability of digital systems such as e-cash or government systems within ASEAN.
“Many countries are going to introduce these systems,” he explained. “And the more we can harmonise and bring them in line with one another, the more we can operate across boundaries and across borders.”
NEED FOR ASEAN TO WORK WITH THE WORLD AS IT IS
Given the tensions between the big powers, Mr Lee stressed the importance of ASEAN having to work with the world as it is. “ASEAN by itself is not big enough to be a bloc,” he said, adding that the grouping has to try to maintain as much cohesion as it can among its members.
As much as ASEAN tries to be friends with all world powers, Mr Lee said that it has to understand where the sensitivities are, where there can be cooperation and where there may be differing views.
“It’s not possible for us to go with one over the other,” he said, adding that various issues have to be dealt with on a case by case basis.
Mr Lee said while it is “very desirable” for the grouping not to have to take sides, the circumstances may come when ASEAN “may have to choose one or the other”. “I hope it does not happen soon,” he added.
ASEAN WILL HAVE TO GET USED TO A DIFFERENT KIND OF RELATIONSHIP WITH THE UNITED STATES
Mr Lee also expressed his belief that the United States is not withdrawing from the Indo-Pacific region and remains “fully engaged”, albeit in a different way. But ASEAN, he added, will have to get used to a different kind of relationship with them, particularly if the US decides to continue with this in the long term.
There is now much more emphasis on what they call “fair and reciprocal relationships”, which is different from the US’ previous approach, Mr Lee observed.
“They were generous, they opened their markets, they made investments, provided regional security, and in the indirect benefits of a prospering region, the US prospered a lot,” he said.
“But now, they say that’s not good enough.”
On the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Mr Lee said he is “reasonably confident” that it will be completed in 2019. He pointed out that there is strong political commitment to conclude negotiations for the pact which, when concluded, will be the world’s largest trading bloc by then.
“We would have of course been delighted if we could have settled the RCEP here,” he said. “It would have been an extra little feather in our cap.
“But we understand political exigencies, we appreciate that a lot of progress has been made and that we are very close to the finish line.”