SINGAPORE: As US-China trade tensions continue to play out, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) needs to maintain its centrality and position itself well as a connector, said Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing on Thursday (Aug 29).
Mr Chan was addressing business leaders and government officials from around the region at the 12th ASEAN and Asia Forum.
The forum, organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), aims to help businesses understand the issues around geopolitical tensions, and how best to manage them.
Mr Chan said that as Southeast Asia will be the intersection of China and US geostrategic interests, ASEAN should position itself as a connector between the two global giants.
"The strategic lines of communications for China and the US intersect in Southeast Asia. This makes us an area of potential contest of influence," he said.
"If we position ourselves well, we will be the connector, appreciated by all. If we do not position ourselves well, we may soon come under pressure from all sides."
When asked if ASEAN countries should pick a side in the US-China rift, Mr Chan said doing so would render the bloc irrelevant.
ASEAN should instead connect and diversify linkages through the digital space, as it transcends geography and size.
"It allows us to reach new levels of cooperation. And when we talk about global integration of production processes, supply chains and distribution networks, data and finance, connectivity will be key," Mr Chan said.
"If ASEAN can be a good testimony of what we've achieved on the digital and financial space, then we can create relevance for ourselves."
But Mr Chan said ASEAN also needs to be mindful of other hotspots, which come in the wake of tensions between the US and China.
“There are many other hotspots that are springing up across the world, because the larger system is also fraying. Many people will then decide that maybe they will be better having alternative regional orders and that will add to the fragmentation of the global economy,” he said.
To avoid that, Mr Chan was adamant that the regional bloc must remain committed to a rules-based system and be coherent in resisting populist policies.
“Every country must have the political leadership that thinks long term for the interest of the region. But if everyone starts to practice beggar-thy-neighbour policies on a regional level, then you will never see the ASEAN that we want."
To bolster the region’s economic security, Mr Chan said that “an aggressive timeline” for multilateral trade deals like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) has been set.
Earlier this month, the ministers from the 16 participating countries had expressed confidence that talks can conclude by the end of the year.
The trade deal involves the 10 ASEAN countries and its six trading partners – China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.