Given complex challenges such as trade uncertainties and technological disruptions, multilateral cooperation has now become “more urgent than ever” for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), said Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (Nov 13).
Mr Lee was speaking at the opening ceremony of the 33rd ASEAN Summit and related meetings – the final milestone of Singapore’s chairmanship of the regional grouping this year.
In his speech, the prime minister said Singapore saw the chairmanship as an “important responsibility” given that the regional grouping of 10 Southeast Asian countries marked its 50th anniversary last year and was entering a new chapter.
Combined with a rapidly changing external environment, the question of how ASEAN can stay united, effective and relevant has become “especially pertinent”.
For one, the international order is at a turning point, with the existing free, open and rules-based multilateral system coming under stress, said Mr Lee.
“Countries, including major powers, are resorting to unilateral actions and bilateral deals, and even explicitly repudiating multilateral approaches and institutions. It is unclear if the world will settle into new rules and norms of international engagement, or whether the international order will break up into rival blocs.”
These strategic trends of big power competition and shifts against multilateralism are pulling ASEAN member states in different directions, said Mr Lee.
Nevertheless, ASEAN has shown that it is able to work together and find common ground. This boils down to the conviction that “ASEAN is greater than the sum of its parts”.
“By coming together in one collective voice, instead of going our separate ways as ten disparate countries, ASEAN members have strengthened our standing in the world,” he said, while noting the regional grouping will be engaging key partners and international organisations through ASEAN-centric platforms, such as the ASEAN+3 meetings, over the next few days in Singapore.
Apart from a new strategic landscape, there are other challenges facing ASEAN. These include disruptions that come with digital technology, as well as looming non-traditional and transnational threats such as terrorism and climate change, said Mr Lee.
For terrorism, it is an issue of physical security and also poses as a “grave threat” to the delicate multi-ethnic and multi-religious social fabric of ASEAN countries, he said.
Meanwhile, climate change makes many ASEAN countries vulnerable to rising sea levels due to the region’s long coastlines and low-lying areas. Higher temperatures and extreme weather are also affecting crop yield, spreading tropical diseases, while threatening the lives and livelihoods of people.
All these mean that multilateral cooperation is now more urgent than ever, stressed Mr Lee.
“These common challenges are complex and unprecedented. No single solution applies to all of us or all of these problems, yet no country can deal with them alone. We need to pool our ideas and resources to tackle these issues together.”
Referring to Singapore’s chosen themes of “resilience” and “innovation” for its chairmanship, he added: “We wanted to build up our collective defences against these challenges, and to use technology to better prepare ASEAN for the future.”
Nevertheless, ASEAN member countries have redoubled integration efforts over the past year.
This includes the “substantial progress” made towards completing negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and the building of an ASEAN Smart Cities Network that will connect people and economies seamlessly.
“These deliverables underscore ASEAN’s strong belief that multilateralism remains an important basis for international cooperation and for the region’s growth and stability,” said Mr Lee.
Moving forward, ASEAN will work with its external partners to tackle these challenges. “We are determined to maintain an open and inclusive ASEAN-centric regional architecture.