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Asean has 'no automatic right' to be at centre of regional architecture: PM Lee

SINGAPORE — The Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) must maintain relevance and cohesion amid regional and global changes, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (Mar 13), as he cautioned that the grouping has “no automatic right” to be at the centre of regional dialogue mechanisms.

Asean has 'no automatic right' to be at centre of regional architecture: PM Lee

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivers the Iseas-Yusuf Ishak Institute's 50th anniversary lecture, on 13 March, 2018. Photo: Jason Quah/TODAY

SINGAPORE — The Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) must maintain relevance and cohesion amid regional and global changes, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (Mar 13), as he cautioned that the grouping has “no automatic right” to be at the centre of regional dialogue mechanisms.

“There is nothing to prevent other groupings or regional cooperation projects from being launched. Some will compete with Asean, others will contribute in complementary ways to regional cooperation and stability... Amidst this Darwinian process, Asean members must come together to maintain Asean’s relevance and cohesion,” said Mr Lee, who was speaking at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute’s 50th anniversary lecture.

While each of the 10 member states has its own domestic issues to manage, Mr Lee urged them to “look beyond their domestic concerns (and) put emphasis on Asean”.

“Governing a country internally is already an all-consuming business, but Asean governments need to look beyond their domestic concerns... Invest political capital in the Asean project, and make a conscious effort to think regionally, not just nationally.

“Only with this commitment by member states, can we deepen our partnership and make progress on Asean,” he said.

The Prime Minister highlighted how member states have demonstrated their support to the grouping and to one another through difficult periods over the years, such as during the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 and the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2002.

As Asean chair this year, Singapore will initiate projects to strengthen collective resilience against common threats, such as terrorism, cybercrime, and climate change. It will also help Asean economies to innovate, and build a more dynamic and connected community through the Asean Smart Cities Network, he said.

Still, Mr Lee noted that one area where Asean members do not have a unified stance, is in terms of strategic outlooks. For instance, not all members are claimant states in the South China Sea dispute. Even among the four that are – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam – “there are different concerns and attitudes”, he said.

“Asean has to recognise this diversity. But we are still able to find common ground because all member states share certain common interests on this issue (such as) ensuring Asean’s relevance, upholding the international rule of law, securing regional peace and stability, and maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea,” he added.

“Therefore we are able to agree to take progressive and constructive steps to manage the disputes and overlapping claims.” For instance, Asean has started negotiations with China on developing a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

In areas where member states are not able to cooperate, they will “put matters aside for the time being, to take up, perhaps later, when conditions are riper”, said the Prime Minister.

While the process of building consensus is “labourious”, it has its merits, he said.

“(Member states) do not think of opting out from or leaving the group because their sovereignty or national interests have been suppressed or undermined,” he said.

“And 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.”

Mr Lee urged Asean to deepen cooperation with the major powers. He noted that new powers like China and India are growing in strength and influence.

He said individual Asean member states must adapt to the new and changing strategic landscape. “Countries have to take into account the policies and interests of new powers, while maintaining their traditional political and economic ties”.

He cautioned that while each Asean member state “feels the influence of the different powers to different degrees”, this must not lead to fault lines within the grouping.

On ties with the United States, Mr Lee said while the political mood in Washington has changed under the Trump administration, America remains the world’s biggest economy and the region’s “security anchor”.

“The US has clearly affirmed its determination to stay engaged in Asia, and countries hope that it will continue to play an active role, particularly in South-east Asia,” he said.

About 500 students, diplomats and public officers attended the lecture, which was followed by a dialogue with Mr Lee.

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