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Asean may have to take sides one day, but PM Lee hopes it ‘does not happen soon’

SINGAPORE – Amid tensions between the world's superpowers, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday (Nov 15) voiced fears that "circumstances may come” where the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) could have to “choose one over the other".

Asean may have to take sides one day, but PM Lee hopes it ‘does not happen soon’

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha shakes hand with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the Closing Ceremony of the ASEAN Summit and Related Summit in Singapore, November 15, 2018.

SINGAPORE – Amid tensions between the world's superpowers, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday (Nov 15) voiced fears that "circumstances may come” where the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) could have to “choose one over the other".

"I hope it does not happen soon,” said Mr Lee, who was speaking at a press conference held at the close of the three-day Asean Summit held in the Republic, which is chairing the regional grouping this year.

He was responding to a question on whether Asean could be compelled to take sides and why it was important not to do so.

The world’s two biggest economies, United States and China, are not seeing eye-to-eye on trade and the South China Sea issue, among other things.

Both countries are also deeply engaged in Asean, separately committing to work with countries in the region on its smart cities network initiative for example.

Mr Lee noted that “it’s easiest not to take sides when everybody else is on the same side”.

“But if you are friends with two countries which are on different sides, then sometimes it is possible to get along with both, sometimes it's more awkward and you try to get along with both. It depends on the issues, it depends on the state of the relationship between them,” he said.

He reiterated: “I think it is very desirable for us not to have to take sides.”

On certain issues such as human resource development, for instance, it is easy to find consensus. But it is “more complex” when it comes to matters such as security, Mr Lee said.

Still, he stressed that Asean “tries to be friends” with all the major powers despite the tensions between them.

“If you’re talking about economic co-operation, theoretically that’s a win-win. But if the global economy pulls apart into different blocs, and then there are hindrances not just to trade but also to investments… the rules… the technologies which are involved… then Asean will be put into a different position,” he pointed out.

“So we will have to deal with this case by case. Asean by itself is not big enough to be a bloc. We have to work with the world as it is, and try and maintain as much cohesion as we can amongst ourselves.”

One of the issues which cropped up during the summit was the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, which is an Asean member.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and US Vice-President Mike Pence had issued sharp rebukes to Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi on her handling of the crisis.

They pointed out that the country’s military “persecution” of the minority Rohingya Muslims was inexcusable.

On its part, Asean is ready to play “an active and positive role”, and it will support all parties in working out a “comprehensive and durable solution”, said Mr Lee reiterated.

For example, Myanmar has invited the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management to dispatch a needs assessment team to the Rakhine State to facilitate the repatriation process.

At the press conference, Mr Lee said Myanmar “understands the anxieties which other countries feel about this matter”. He added that Ms Suu Kyi had “made an effective pitch explaining the complexity of the situation and how Myanmar is trying its best, in order to make some progress”.

Turning to negotiations on a code of conduct on the South China Sea territorial disputes, Mr Lee said that Asean member states and China have agreed to complete the first reading of the single draft of the negotiating text by next year.

Negotiations, however, are still in early stages and “much work remains ahead”, he added.

Earlier this week, China's Premier Li Keqiang expressed hoped that the consultation on the code of conduct would be completed in three years.

Nevertheless, Mr Lee said at the press conference the timeline depends on “what issues come up”.

“But I’m sure all the participants will exercise their best efforts in order to try and bring it to a conclusion. But I do not underestimate the complexity and the difficulty of the problems,” he said.


Mr Lee was also asked about US President Donald Trump’s no-show at this year’s summit. The US was represented by Mr Pence.

Mr Trump’s absence has raised questions about the US’ commitment to Asean. Mr Lee, however, said that America is fully engaged with the region.

At the Asean-US Summit on Thursday, Mr Pence described Asean as an “indispensable and irreplaceable strategic partner” which is central to the US’ vision for the region.

Mr Lee said he has “no doubt” Mr Pence conveyed Mr Trump’s intent of placing emphasis on the region. “What is important is the substance, the overall relationship and the policies which are pursued, and the cumulative effects over time,” added Mr Lee.

On the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Mr Lee reiterated that substantial progress has been made, with a strong commitment to conclude negotiations next year.

Apart from the 10 Asean member states, other RCEP signatories include China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. RCEP will form the world’s largest trading bloc, accounting for a third of global gross domestic product.

“We would, of course, be delighted if we could have settled the RCEP here, it would have been an excellent little feather in our cap. But we understand the political exigencies, we appreciate that a lot of progress has been made, and that we are very close to the finish line,” said Mr Lee.


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