SINGAPORE: Southeast Asia’s foreign ministers on Thursday (Aug 2) reiterated the need to integrate further and stay nimble amid technological disruptions. These were laid out in a wide-ranging joint statement that also included a sign of progress for negotiations on a code of conduct in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
The 26-page joint communique was issued at the end of a series of meetings at the Singapore Expo, where officials from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also met with key partners from the region, such as Japan and China.
Speaking at a press conference, Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan described the wide variety of topics discussed as the grouping’s responses to “tectonic shifts” that have rendered ASEAN at an “inflexion point”.
“We are facing challenges because the world as we know it for the past 70 years has changed,” he said, citing the emergence of a multi-polar world, brewing trade wars and disruptive shifts caused by a "digital revolution".
Despite that, ASEAN has to remain relevant and improve the lives of its people, he said.
For one, ASEAN member states reaffirmed their commitment to deeper economic integration through various ASEAN-led initiatives, as well as the conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
“We reiterated the priority placed by ASEAN on the RCEP as a centrepiece of its external economic relations, particularly at a time of growing uncertainty in global trade,” the joint communique said.
The ministers also agreed to “fully tap the opportunities afforded by new technologies and innovation arising from the digital revolution”, though they stressed the need to stay responsive to emerging issues, such as non-traditional security threats and environmental challenges.
A “major achievement” also came in the form of an agreement with China on a single draft for future negotiations on the code of conduct in the South China Sea, said Dr Balakrishnan.
However, he told reporters that the draft document does not mean that negotiations are over, or that all the competing claims over territory in the South China Sea are resolved. He also said it would be premature to set a deadline for the negotiations.
At the press conference, Dr Balakrishnan was also asked about a media report on a potential cybersecurity agreement between ASEAN and Russia.
To that, he would only say that the regional grouping is not looking for any “exclusive arrangements” and that it is open to cooperation with “as many partners as possible in order to secure (the region’s) networks (and) maximize opportunities in this digital revolution”.
The minister added that while the digital revolution brings with it opportunities, the issue of cybersecurity needs to be addressed before the benefits of the digital revolution can be reliably harvested.
“Cybersecurity is a concern for all of us. We will work with all partners who are willing to engage us, share technology, best practices and failures so that we don’t repeat mistakes.”
When summarising the joint communique, Dr Balakrishnan described the annual meeting among ASEAN foreign ministers as a “good session" and quipped that “one index of that is we are able to issue the communique well ahead of time”.
Still, he noted that the negotiating process is never easy with the involvement of 10 diverse countries.
“Getting everyone to agree on a (joint communique) is never a trivial exercise,” he said. “But our senior officials have worked very hard … and arrived at a statement which we believe accurately reflects the consensus position of all 10 ASEAN countries.
Last year, the release of the customary communique at the end of the meetings was delayed with reports suggesting that there was a lack of consensus on how to refer to disputes in the South China Sea.