SINGAPORE: ASEAN is at an “inflection point” today due to shifts in geopolitical balance, the rise of the middle class, and global threats like extremism, said Singapore's Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan on Tuesday (Dec 5).
Speaking at a public lecture on ASEAN at the Yusof Ishak Institute, he also said the regional bloc has to grapple with challenges posed by 10 highly diverse member countries - in terms of size, population, economy, and how nations are governed.
For this reason, he said consensus is crucial for ASEAN unity.
“Consensus is a design feature because of the great diversity within ASEAN. Consensus forces us to take an enlightened long-term view of our own national interests vis a vis the larger long-term regional interest,” said Dr Balakrishnan.
“It allows us to achieve more sustainable solutions,” he added.
He said he remains “optimistic” that ASEAN’s prospects are bright, as it steps into the next 50 years.
Dr Balakrishnan looked back at ASEAN’s achievements over the past fifty years adding that had it not been formed, the region would have become a collection of proxies and vassal states to the major powers of the day.
This would not have been a recipe for peace, prosperity, and economic transformation which it has witnessed over the past fifty years, he said, adding that its unity also lent the region credibility and relevance to major powers.
Otherwise, no one will take us seriously,” said Dr Balakrishnan, noting that leaders of major powers like the US, China and India make the time to attend ASEAN gatherings, and to hear what the bloc has to say.
Dr Balakrishnan noted that ASEAN will always be affected by externalities.
“The challenge is whether the external tsunamis will overwhelm or divide us, or whether we collectively build a bigger, stronger ship that will allow us to navigate out of danger and to expand opportunities for all our people,” he added.
That’s why Singapore, as the incoming chair of ASEAN, is set to focus on strengthening resilience and expanding innovative capacity, he said.
There will be a focus on digital revolution and e-commerce, investing in people - particularly the younger population, as 60 per cent of ASEAN’s population is below 35 years old, strengthening economic resilience, and on stepping up regional economic partnerships.
Throughout the lecture, Dr Balakrishnan emphasised the importance of interdependence.
“You gain more by working together, investing in one another and by trading with one another, because the opposite scenario is to divide the world into rival blocs, insist on narrow independence, engage in zero sum competition, and ultimately proxy wars”, he said.
He also said that ASEAN does not subscribe to taking sides. He acknowledged that there may be disagreements, but added that it “does not make sense for you to let the disagreement derail the overall relationships”.
With respect to ASEAN’s relationship with regional and global superpowers, he said the bloc should be able to tell them, “please, don’t force us to choose sides, because we are a region with great opportunity and there’s more than enough space and opportunity for everyone, and we can achieve a win-win outcome for all”.
Dr Balakrishnan noted that the relationship between the US and China are at its “most delicate and sensitive”, and what happens there has “tremendous impact” on ASEAN. There may be competition, and temptations to go back to old war habits, said Dr Balakrishnan. But he hopes that both countries’ dependence on one another will help “cooler heads” prevail.
For next year’s meetings, Dr Balakrishnan said he hopes to see leaders spend “quiet time” with each other, without an audience, so that they can build mutual trust, and understand each others’ deepest fears and aspirations to be able to find the consensus to move forward on issues.
He added that Singapore will carry out its role as an honest broker to facilitate resolution. One example he cited was the progress made on the South China Sea last month.
Dr Balakrishnan added that he hopes there will be no trade wars next year, and that various trade pacts including the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) will be settled by then.
Other issues on the table will include looking at opportunities for ASEAN citizens, digitally integrating the region, investing in various infrastructure, and emphasising interdependence, so that “it is not in anyone’s interest to build walls, or start a war, or to engage in zero sum games, or to force us to choose sides”, he said.