May 12, 2023
SINGAPORE – In an increasingly troubled world, the Asean grouping remains a life raft for its members, which can steer the region’s affairs when they pull together, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Touching on the concept of Asean centrality, he stressed that the bloc’s 10 members must be unified and cohesive. The concept refers to the regional grouping being in the driver’s seat and shaping key outcomes affecting South-east Asia, instead of having the region’s fortunes determined by external parties.
“We need Asean to be unified, to be cohesive, to be effective, to be central. If you’re not all of the above, you will not be central,” said PM Lee on Thursday.
“You can talk all you like about Asean centrality and upholding it, but it will be just words.”
He was speaking to the Singapore media at the close of the 42nd Asean Summit. The two-day event saw Asean leaders attending meetings in Labuan Bajo, a town on the western tip of Indonesia’s Flores island.
Responding to a question on how relevant Asean continues to be, PM Lee underscored the role that the grouping plays for its members.
“The more troubled the world is, the more you need a safety life raft. And Asean is our life raft, it is the life raft for all the Asean members. Because each one of us in a global context – we are not that big,” he said.
“Singapore is very small. But if we are together, 10 countries, it’s a significant economic weight, and is a voice which counts for something in regional affairs.”
With a combined gross domestic product of more than US$3.4 trillion (S$4.5 trillion) in 2021, Asean is the world’s fifth-largest economy, and is on track to becoming the fourth largest by 2030.
While Asean cannot determine the outcome of global affairs, it is able to “speak, and be listened to”, said PM Lee. He said that the more the members of the bloc can work together in the political, security and economic fields, the more its partners will want to collaborate with the region and take it seriously.
This is why Asean has been talking about various initiatives like its efforts in the green and digital economy, and upgrading its free trade agreements with partners such as New Zealand and Australia.
But at the same time, the bloc takes an expansive view of what the Asia-Pacific region is, said PM Lee.
Responding to a separate question on the work that Asean does with its partners, he said that when the bloc formed the East Asia Summit group, its members thought very carefully about its partners.
He was referring to the annual meeting that Asean leaders have with their international partners, including Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States.
“The original conception was only South-east Asia and North-east Asia. But we argued about it in Asean extensively, and we extended that to include not just Asean plus China, (South) Korea and Japan, but we also included Australia and New Zealand. And we also included India,” he said.
PM Lee said that while the choice of these partners meant that the summit would include countries on the western side of the region, the decision was made to call it the East Asia Summit and to retain the use of the term “Asia-Pacific”. This was done despite other countries talking about the region using terms such as the “Indo-Pacific”.
“Let us define what it is we mean when we say the Indo-Pacific, because everybody has a slightly different nuance to it. And everybody says it is free and open in one way or the other, but actually there’s nuance to those adjectives too,” he said.
Zooming in on the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), PM Lee called this an “omni-directional idea” that is not directed against any particular power, and one that is meant to enable Asean to work with all of them.
The AOIP, an initiative led by Indonesia that was signed in 2019 by Asean leaders at the 34th Asean Summit, lays out the bloc’s common position on regional cooperation, security and prosperity, as well as its stance on not taking sides with any major powers competing for influence in the region.
This agreement that Asean came up with has been built on the basis of what the bloc has been doing with the East Asia Summit, said PM Lee.
“It is not directed against any particular power. It’s meant to enable us to cooperate with all of them. They will have contradictions, we know, but hopefully by having Asean work with all of them, that generates some common ground amongst them, and that will put Asean in a position to be at the centre of regional affairs,” he said.
“And that will enable Asean to help contribute to the balance of power in the region, and therefore enable Asean centrality to work.”