Saturday 17 November 2018

33rd ASEAN Summit 2018: Singapore hands over ASEAN chairmanship to Thailand

ASEAN must seize digital opportunity: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
Deeper economic integration, greater unity will also help it overcome challenges
By Yasmine Yahya, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 16 Nov 2018

ASEAN has invested in its next generation and worked on building a more secure region this year, but much more remains to be done, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday as Singapore handed the role of chairman to Thailand.

At a media conference wrapping up this week's summits, PM Lee outlined some of ASEAN's key achievements this year, and said Singapore will continue to help shepherd the flagship ASEAN Smart Cities Network and work closely with subsequent chairs to enhance it and increase the number of participating cities.

By the time Singapore next chairs the group in 2028, ASEAN will likely be the world's fourth-largest economy, he noted, adding that while prospects are bright overall, there are challenges to be overcome.

"The free, open and rules-based multilateral order which has underpinned ASEAN's growth and stability is fraying, and big power competition is pulling ASEAN member states in different directions," he said.

"At the same time we are also facing non-traditional transnational issues such as digital technologies and climate change, and these require closer cooperation."

In the face of such challenges, PM Lee outlined three targets he hoped ASEAN would achieve in the next decade: Deeper economic integration, enhanced unity so as to more effectively engage its major partners, and populations equipped with skills needed for new jobs in the digital economy.

To achieve these broad goals, ASEAN will need to comprehensively lower trade barriers and significantly increase trade with each other, he said.

"Also, we need, urgently, massive infrastructure investments in connectivity and productive capacity over the next 10 years in many of the ASEAN countries, and economic integration will help that happen," he added.

Strengthening its centrality and unity is key, PM Lee said, because as ASEAN becomes more cohesive, it can engage its partners in a coherent way and it would be worth their while to do business with ASEAN.

As for training its people, PM Lee said ASEAN should take advantage of the digital revolution to ensure the interoperability of digital systems within the region - that is, the digital systems developed in one country can be used in others too.

"Many countries are going to introduce these systems - it could be e-cash, government systems or data rules - and the more we can harmonise and bring them in line with one another, the more we can operate across borders and have a more integrated economy," he said.

Recapping the highlights of this week's summits, PM Lee noted the substantial progress on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade deal and the strong political commitment to conclude negotiations next year.

Leaders also expressed support for efforts towards the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, and discussed the South China Sea as well as the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar's Rakhine State.

Myanmar has invited the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management to facilitate the repatriation of Rohingya refugees.

"ASEAN is ready to play an active and positive role... and will support efforts by all parties to work towards a comprehensive and durable solution," PM Lee said.

At the summit's closing ceremony, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said Thailand would work on enhancing connectivity and sustainable development.

He called on members to "collaborate even more closely". But growing economic cooperation must also come with "due consideration to balance and benefits for the people", he added, pledging to help enhance ASEAN's role in tackling global issues like climate change.

Thailand assumes ASEAN chairmanship amid challenges
Prayut outlines key priorities, including sustainability and boosting connectivity
By Arlina Arshad, Regional Correspondent, The Straits Times, 16 Nov 2018

After a decade, the symbolic gavel of the ASEAN chairmanship has been turned over again from Singapore to Thailand.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha yesterday thanked and congratulated his Singapore counterpart Lee Hsien Loong on "efficiently driving forward a resilient and innovative ASEAN community", and promised that Thailand will continue the good work.

It last held the post in 2009, after taking over from Singapore.

Mr Prayut, a retired general, unveiled the theme of its chairmanship - Advancing Partnership for Sustainability - at the closing ceremony of the 33rd ASEAN Summit at the Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre.

ASEAN's role is recognised internationally and it is at the centre of the regional architecture, he said. "However, ASEAN is also facing a number of challenges such as trade and political competition, disruptive technologies, transnational crime, inequities and transformation in the region's social structure," he added.

Thailand's key priorities as the new chair, he said, include boosting connectivity in infrastructure, rules and regulations, and people-to-people links to create a seamless ASEAN. Another focus is sustainability, be it in security, economic growth, the green economy or development.

He noted that it was important for ASEAN to make use of technological advances to enhance its competitiveness as member states "work towards the future and move forward together dynamically".

Mr Prayut called on members to "collaborate even more closely", on the foundation of unity and the principles of mutual trust, mutual respect and mutual benefit.

He also promised to enhance the role of ASEAN in addressing global issues such as climate change.

Wrapping up his speech, he urged the ASEAN community and stakeholders to strengthen ASEAN's identity and help it become a people-centred community "that leaves no one behind and looks forward to our future with pride".

A founding member of ASEAN along with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, Thailand has played a crucial role since the grouping's establishment in Bangkok 51 years ago.

As the incoming chair, Thailand has much on its plate as it walks a tightrope to maintain a balance between regional and international concerns and competing interests.

With the United States-China trade war, Thailand faces the mammoth task of getting leaders to commit to free trade and open markets.

It is expected to help push forward the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a trade pact involving ASEAN and six of its key trade partners. This week, leaders agreed to conclude next year the negotiations of what would be the world's biggest trade pact, covering half of the global population.

Ms Moe Thuzar, a lead researcher at the ASEAN Studies Centre of the Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute, said Thailand's chairmanship will see the continuation of important regional initiatives. On the economic front, the challenge is to help the region navigate uncertainties thrown up by the rise of protectionist and anti-globalisation sentiments, as well as steer negotiations towards a successful conclusion of the RCEP, she said.

"The political-security landscape is where ASEAN has had to manage and balance big power rivalries in the region, and this is where the role of ASEAN centrality becomes more important than ever," she added.

Thailand's assumption of the ASEAN chairmanship, rotated annually among 10 member states in alphabetical order, will begin on Jan 1, 2019, and continue until the end of the year. Nearly 200 meetings are expected to be held over the period.

The post is seen as a political boost to Mr Prayut at a time when the country is gearing up for a general election tentatively set for February, which critics hope will return Thailand to civilian rule. The country is still under military control, after a 2014 military coup led by Mr Prayut ousted democratically elected civilian premier Yingluck Shinawatra.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Singapore took over from the Philippines as ASEAN chair in January this year. Vietnam will take over in 2020.

ASEAN must strive to remain cohesive amid global tensions: PM Lee
It would be put in a difficult position if global economy pulls apart into different blocs
By Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 16 Nov 2018

ASEAN has to work with the world as it is and try to maintain cohesion among its member states, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

Noting that "it is a reality there are tensions between the powers", Mr Lee said he hoped that the regional grouping would not be put in a position where it would have to take sides.

He was addressing reporters at the end of the 33rd ASEAN Summit and related summits and said that ASEAN, by itself, was not big enough to be a bloc.

It tries to be friends with other nations, he said, and many of them are present at meetings such as the East Asia Summit - which involves 18 countries including China, the United States and Australia - where issues of varying sensitivities are discussed.

"We have to understand where the sensitivities are, where we can cooperate, where different countries would have different positions, and it is not possible for us to go with one or with the other," he said.

While economic cooperation appears to be a positive development, should the global economy pull apart into different blocs, with hindrances to trade and investment, among other matters, ASEAN would be put in a difficult position, Mr Lee added.

"We will have to deal with this case by case," he said.

Later, he added: "It is very desirable for us not to have to take sides, but the circumstances may come where ASEAN may have to choose one or the other. I hope it does not happen soon."

Yesterday, Mr Lee was also asked about issues in three areas - the Korean peninsula, South China Sea and Myanmar's Rakhine state - as well as the progress made in reconciling the differing views of various parties.

He said everyone in the ASEAN Summit meetings was "on the same side" on the Korean peninsula in hoping for regional stability, a reduction of tensions, as well as denuclearisation.

There are, however, differences when it comes to the South China Sea, although he noted that various countries' views are well-known - along with what is being done.

He was referring to a code of conduct (COC) being discussed, to manage differences in South China Sea territorial disputes.

Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam all stake overlapping territorial claims on the disputed waterway.

Mr Lee said it is likely the negotiating text will undergo a first reading next year, as the Chinese have suggested, although it remains unclear if the code will be settled within the next three years.

"It depends what issues come up... I'm sure all the participants will exercise their best efforts in order to try and bring it to a conclusion," he said. "But I do not underestimate the complexity and the difficulty of the problems when you come to the substance of the COC."

On Rakhine state, Mr Lee noted that there have been some developments in the last few weeks, referring to efforts to repatriate the first groups of refugees primed to return to Myanmar.

"We hope it (can) be brought about, but it is just the start of the process, and I think Myanmar understands the anxieties which other countries feel about this matter," he said.

He added: "I believe the State Counsellor (Ms Aung San Suu Kyi) made an effective pitch expressing the complexity of the situation, and how Myanmar is trying its best in order to make some progress."

Asked how the further opening of China will affect ASEAN member states, Mr Lee expressed hope that Singapore can continue participating in Chinese development, adding that the superpower's growth is also a positive move on the global stage.

But he said given China's current influence, arrangements made previously are harder to wear politically and need to be updated.

Multilateral institutions also need to be updated to reflect the shifting balance in the world economy, and new forms in which economic exchange is taking place, he said.

While he believes China's preoccupation, when it comes to its own development, is domestic, he added that its huge population means its moves have a considerable impact on the rest of the world.

"Increasingly, it will become necessary for China to take into account its impact on the rest of the world... in formulating its policies and in pacing out and structuring its reforms," he said.

Asked about his assessment of US commitment to the Indo-Pacific region, Mr Lee said he believes it is "fully engaged". This comes as some observers cast doubt on US Vice-President Mike Pence's comments about enduring commitment, given that President Donald Trump did not show up in Singapore.

"They want to have influence, they are not at all withdrawing and I believe that," said Mr Lee. "They want to engage but they want to engage in a different way, much more emphasis on what they call fair and reciprocal relationships, which is different from the previous approach."

Mr Lee noted that at one summit, then President Barack Obama was not able to attend and sent Secretary of State John Kerry instead.

"What is important is the substance... the overall relationship and the policies which are pursued, and their cumulative effects over time," he said.

6th ASEAN-United States Summit: ASEAN wants to work with both US and China, says PM Lee, as US Vice-President Mike Pence calls for Indo-Pacific free of 'empires'
By Bhagyashree Garekar, Deputy Foreign Editor, The Straits Times, 16 Nov 2018

The Indo-Pacific has no place for "empire and aggression", US Vice-President Mike Pence told Asean leaders yesterday in a pushback against China's growing presence in the region.

Addressing the 10 Asean heads of states and governments at their annual summit, Mr Pence said: "Like you, we seek an Indo-Pacific in which all nations, large and small, can prosper and thrive - secure in our sovereignty, confident in our values and growing stronger together. We all agree that empire and aggression have no place in the Indo-Pacific."

Standing in for President Donald Trump, who has drawn criticism for choosing to skip the meeting this year, he said: "Our vision for the Indo-Pacific excludes no nation. It only requires that every nation treat their neighbours with respect, (that) they respect the sovereignty of our nations and the international rules of order."

His remarks come a month after he made a major speech in Washington where he spoke against China's "aggression" in the East and South China Seas, and criticised its use of "debt diplomacy" through which Beijing has come to expand its influence over smaller countries in Asia after giving them unsustainable infrastructure loans.

In response, the United States has canvassed support for its vision of the Indo-Pacific first unveiled by Mr Trump at last year's Apec summit. It is seeking to counter China's state-led trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative through channelling greater private sector investments in the region.

The US has also stepped up its "freedom of navigation" exercises in the strategic South China Sea, where China has militarised disputed islands in waters also contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

In his remarks to fellow leaders and Mr Pence during the summit, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the Asean-US partnership has to be seen in the context of the US-China relationship, stressing that Asean nations want to work with both countries.

"The US-China relationship is the most important set of bilateral relations, and has profound implications for Asean," PM Lee said.

"Asean countries want to be able to engage with both US and China, and maximise the scope and advantages of our cooperation.

"Therefore, we hope that the US-China relations remain stable and hope that all will work out.

"We are open to proposals by external partners to strengthen the existing Asean-centric regional architecture."

At the same time as Beijing and Washington have both sought more influence in the region, they have also been locked in a trade war for most of this year.

Their tit-for-tat tariffs, imposed on trade worth US$350 billion (S$482 billion), have set off tensions across the globe and hurt growth prospects.

PM Lee noted that Mr Pence's reiteration of a "free and open Indo-Pacific" with its fundamental principles - such as respect for Asean centrality, promoting a rules-based order and resolving disputes in a peaceful manner - was aligned with Asean's key interests.

"We also believe that a robust, united Asean-centric regional architecture that is open, inclusive, and invites and interacts with all stakeholders is our best chance of building a peaceful, prosperous and secure region," he said.

PM Lee also welcomed the US-North Korea summit in Singapore in June as the start of a journey to lasting peace on a denuclearised Korean peninsula, assuring the meeting that Singapore would do its bit to fully implement obligations under the United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Noting that ties had grown beyond traditional areas such as defence, he announced that the Asean-US Leaders' Statement on Cybersecurity Cooperation had been adopted. The initiative aims to strengthen the resilience and capabilities against cybercrime and cyber attacks.

PM Lee also said he looked forward to the further development of the US-Asean Smart Cities Partnership, which Mr Pence said would catalyse American investment in the region's digital infrastructure, shoring up its security.

Defence establishments on both sides are set to hold an Asean-US maritime exercise next year.

The US is Asean's third-largest trading partner, and its cumulative investment in Asean totals almost US$274 billion, more than US investments in China, India, Japan and South Korea combined.

East Asia Summit members to boost security cooperation
Areas of concern include returning foreign fighters, cyber security
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, Indonesia Correspondent, The Straits Times, 16 Nov 2018

With the world facing renewed anxieties over nuclear warfare and grappling with the threat of cyber attacks and terrorism, Asean nations and eight of their key partners yesterday vowed to step up cooperation in a range of security areas.

East Asia Summit (EAS) members agreed to do more to tackle returning foreign fighters, beef up cyber security, and ensure the safe and secure use, storage and transport of nuclear and other radioactive materials.

They also said they would press on with efforts on the Asean Smart Cities Network, a flagship deliverable under Singapore's Asean chairmanship this year, and the fight against plastic litter in the oceans.

The 18-country EAS - which groups all 10 Asean members plus Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States - released five statements after its meeting yesterday.


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that terrorism and violent extremism remain a grave concern.

"South-east Asia is on the frontline," he told his counterparts as he wrapped up their discussion.

The region is not just a recruiting ground for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it is also a target in the extremist group's expansion plans, he added. ISIS, after all, has made clear that it wants to set up a caliphate in South-east Asia.

The prolonged siege in Marawi in the Philippines may have ended, but insurgents have regrouped, PM Lee pointed out. And ISIS has been linked to terrorist attacks in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as close to 50 thwarted attack plots - including one against Singapore.

"The region also faces heightened threat of attack from returnee fighters and lone wolves," he said. "Therefore, it is more important than ever for continued cooperation among countries."

Among other things, EAS members pledged to get the public - including young people, women, families, religious leaders and community groups - more involved in efforts to inoculate the community against violent extremism.

They also agreed to share information on foreign fighters - including on their movements and financial information - in a timely manner, and do more to stop them from crossing borders.


With cyber security under discussion, the EAS members said they were determined to promote secure and resilient information and communications technologies (ICT) infrastructure, noting that this can contribute to regional security and stability.

They will work together to promote an open, secure, stable, accessible and peaceful ICT environment - which is critical to connectivity and economic development - and, recognising that some states may lack the capacity to protect their networks, provide help on issues such as developing technical skills.

They also recognised the importance of strengthening cooperation on personal data protection. They said they would address the digital divide and development gap by supporting initiatives such as helping micro, small and medium-sized enterprises make use of these technologies.


It is important to ensure the safety and security of nuclear and other radioactive materials, EAS members said.

They agreed that nuclear energy and technology could play useful roles in fields such as medicine, agriculture and energy.

Acknowledging that all states have the right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, consistent with international law, they pointed out that acts of nuclear terrorism could pose a threat to international peace and security.

The members encouraged all states to build a robust domestic nuclear safety and security regime and conduct exercises to prepare their communities for incidents involving radioactive materials.

They reaffirmed that non-state actors should be prevented from developing, acquiring, transporting or using nuclear weapons.


They also took aim at a problem plaguing the environment: The rise of plastic litter in the oceans, which places marine biodiversity, as well as industries such as fisheries, maritime transport and tourism at risk.

More can be done, including in improving the management of plastic waste, promoting research and education on marine plastic debris, and enhancing cooperation in policy reform and law enforcement.


EAS members also recognised that developing a regional smart cities ecosystem will help the region weather challenges arising from rapid urbanisation and allow them to "harvest the opportunities associated with the ongoing digital and fourth industrial revolution" for better economic, social and environmental outcomes.

The Asean Smart Cities Network, they agreed, would help uplift the lives of Asean citizens.

"There is still much more to be done for the EAS to evolve into an anchor platform for maintaining regional peace, stability and prosperity," said PM Lee.

He added: "I am confident that with the continued support of participating countries, the EAS will continue to grow from strength to strength, and play an essential role in strengthening our open, inclusive and Asean-centric regional architecture."

Asean Plus Three leaders pledge to tackle healthcare challenges
By Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 16 Nov 2018

With memories of the 2003 Sars outbreak still fresh, Asean and three regional partners - China, South Korea and Japan - have taken another step towards safeguarding healthcare in the area.

A Statement on Cooperation Against Antimicrobial Resistance was issued yesterday at the 21st Asean Plus Three Summit, in addition to other matters tabled, such as a work programme on economic cooperation.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the summit that this statement "will drive our collective efforts to tackle this pressing challenge".

While countries in the group cooperate in areas such as education, finance and food security, he noted that this year they paid particular attention to healthcare.

The statement notes the adverse impact of antimicrobial resistance in agriculture and healthcare.

It also recognises that such resistance will raise mortality and healthcare costs - affecting healthcare systems and global economies.

In the statement, leaders agreed to speed up regional action against antimicrobial resistance.

Among other issues, they pledged to strengthen efforts in implementing commitments under the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, to fight communicable diseases and epidemics such as malaria, tuberculosis and hepatitis.

They also agreed to encourage and support countries in formulating and implementing national action plans.

The summit also saw countries agree to work together to tackle the issue of plastic waste in the ocean, the Nikkei Asian Review reported yesterday.

It said leaders discussed the launch of the Asean Plus Three Marine Plastics Debris Cooperative Action Initiative, which will see nations work together to develop capacity in monitoring plastic waste in the ocean, as well as share best practices with each other.

Last year, Asean's trade in goods with the Plus Three countries totalled more than US$800 billion (S$1.1 trillion), and at the summit, PM Lee outlined the "unpredictable strategic landscape" countries now find themselves in as well.

"Major power rivalry is on the rise, manifesting itself in competing visions for the regional architecture and in a growing trade war," he said.

And while the digital revolution allows nations to forge closer networks, it has also made them more vulnerable to cyber attacks.

"These developments call for the Asean Plus Three members to close ranks and to redouble our efforts to uphold multilateralism," said PM Lee.

He noted the need to strengthen the multilateral trading system, expand cooperation into digital domains such as fintech and build a sustainable future for people across the region.

"I am confident that the Asean Plus Three will continue to grow and strengthen, and contribute to playing a vital role in maintaining our open, inclusive and Asean-centric regional architecture," he said.

Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Summit: Leaders vow to create world's largest free trade area in 2019
Task to conclude RCEP talks gains urgency amid current headwinds in global economy
By Yasmine Yahya, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 15 Nov 2018

Leaders of Asean's 10 members and six key trading partners vowed to seal a pact to create the world's largest free trade area next year - the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

"The task to conclude the RCEP negotiations is becoming more urgent and significant given the current headwinds faced by the global economy," they said in a statement after meeting at the RCEP Summit.

"We undertook the collective commitment to deliver on the expeditious conclusion of the RCEP... to foster an open, inclusive and rules-based trading system, and demonstrate to the world that it is possible to make trade work for all."

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who hosted the summit, said he was heartened by the strong political will demonstrated and substantial progress made in negotiations.

Five more chapters of the pact were concluded this year, bringing the total to seven. And "significant breakthroughs" were made in negotiating parts on trading rules.

Discussions on market access had also advanced substantially, bringing the deal closer to finalisation next year. "We are now at the final stage of negotiations," he said.

"With the strong momentum generated this year, I am pleased to note that the RCEP negotiations are poised for conclusion in 2019."

In his remarks to fellow leaders, PM Lee noted that negotiations have taken "much longer than usual" due to the unique challenges of negotiating a mega free trade agreement (FTA).

"Complexities are expected as we are a group of diverse economies. For a number of us, this will be our first FTA with each other. But when concluded, the benefits will be equally substantial," he said.

"A substantial outcome for the RCEP will reassure businesses that our region remains committed to building a pro-business and investor-friendly climate," he added.

The RCEP accounts for 45 per cent of the world population, 40 per cent of global trade and a third of the world's economy. Negotiations began in 2013, with an initial target of wrapping them up by 2015, but this has been postponed several times, including this year.

PM Lee noted that talks were into their sixth year now, and urged fellow leaders to press on, saying: "Further prolonging negotiations puts the RCEP at risk of losing credibility and support from our stakeholders, and will mean missing a major opportunity to bring tangible benefits to our businesses and citizens."

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged members to bear in mind that the sum total of the agreement is bigger than any single item, and PM Lee said he was encouraged by the commitment all had shown to conclude a high-quality, mutually beneficial RCEP next year. He also thanked Indonesia for its leadership as RCEP country coordinator.

Speaking to the media after the summit, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said all the leaders present expressed "a strong determination" to conclude talks next year.

While some of the countries involved, including Indonesia and India, are holding elections next year, Mr Chan said he is "cautiously optimistic" this will not impede the progress of negotiations.

"The benefits of RCEP are for the long haul and many countries, if not all, understand this," he said.

"At the beginning of 2018, when we started our chairmanship... not many of us would have dared to imagine the kind of results we have achieved at the end of 2018," he added, referring to Singapore's chairmanship of Asean this year.

"This would not have been possible without the cooperation and support from all the ministers and countries involved," he added.

Asean has to stay open to sustain its dynamism: PM Lee
Grouping a bright spot amid slowing world growth and rising protectionism
By Yasmine Yahya, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 15 Nov 2018

Asean remains a bright spot in the world economy at a time of slowing global growth and rising protectionism, but it has to stay open and connected to sustain its economic dynamism, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

The grouping's members should also "safeguard the multilateral trading system as the basis of global commerce", he added.

He was speaking at a working lunch he hosted at the Asean Summit for Asean leaders and three guests - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Christine Lagarde.

All three are strong advocates of multilateralism, PM Lee noted. Canada is current president of the Group of Seven (G-7) largest advanced economies, Chile is the incoming chairman of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum and an active member of the Pacific Alliance - a Latin American trade bloc - and the IMF provides a multilateral platform for its 189 members to work together.

PM Lee also noted that the world is becoming more interdependent and interconnected due to digital technologies and transboundary challenges like climate change and cyber security. "Yet, at the same time, we may become more divided and insular because of growing nativism and protectionism."

He noted that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has revised its world merchandise trade growth forecast down, and the multilateral system that has underpinned global growth and stability is under stress.

"In the face of these trends, Asean has remained a bright spot. It is one of the most politically stable and economically vibrant regional groupings in the world," he said.

Four Asean members have also signed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership alongside Canada, Chile and others, he noted. The pact enters into force next month.

Wrapping up the closed-door session later, PM Lee thanked his colleagues for their candid exchange of views. He noted that the IMF's latest forecast is that Asia will grow by 5.6 per cent this year, outstripping global growth of 3.7 per cent. And Asean's digital economy is projected to grow to US$200 billion (S$276 billion) by 2025.

"However, to sustain our economic dynamism, we need to remain open and connected, and safeguard the multilateral trading system as the basis of global commerce," PM Lee said.

"At the same time, we should consider seriously how to update the WTO system to address current economic realities, such as e-commerce and the rise of emerging economies. These reforms are necessary to keep the system relevant."

"I am glad that Asean is not alone in upholding a free, open and rules-based multilateral system," he said, adding that it values the continued support of its external partners. "We also look forward to your participation in key Asean initiatives such as the Asean Smart Cities Network, which will better prepare our cities and our peoples for the future."

33rd ASEAN Summit Gala Dinner: After back-to-back talks, leaders tuck into dishes inspired by local delicacies
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, Indonesia Correspondent, The Straits Times, 15 Nov 2018

Business came first, with 10 hectic hours of back-to-back talks on trade, bilateral ties and global developments.

And then came the time to unwind.

It was a cool, overcast evening, but the mood was jubilant when Asean leaders and their key partners gathered yesterday for a gala dinner at the end of a gruelling day.

As he flagged off a night of food, festivities and free-flowing conversation, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that there was much to cheer about.

It had been a busy year of mapping out and launching deliverables to strengthen the Asean community and benefit its people, he said at the start of the dinner for the 33rd Asean Summit and related meetings, the final milestone of Singapore's one-year chairmanship of the regional grouping.

"I think we have once again outdone ourselves," said PM Lee, referring to the bloc's achievements this year.

This, he added, would not have been possible without the collective commitment and efforts of Asean and its partners.

"Therefore, tonight we deserve to let our hair down just a little and to celebrate," said PM Lee. "To celebrate the fruits of our labour. To celebrate our strong and enduring friendship. To celebrate how far Asean has come and our future ahead."

The bonhomie was evident at the gathering, depicted by PM Lee as one that is among family members and close friends.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, however, was a conspicuous absentee.

He skipped the dinner for some much-needed rest, said presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo, adding that Mr Duterte - who had also been absent at several events earlier in the day - had been working late the previous night, getting less than three hours of sleep.

PM Lee noted that Asean leaders had met no fewer than six times this year at Asean-related events, while its officials have held countless meetings.

These meetings bred familiarity and built an Asean spirit "that is especially palpable when we see each other at international fora".

And the grouping, which turned 51 this year, has also forged lasting friendships and memories with its external partners, added PM Lee.

These close bonds were on full display at the dinner.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delved into conversation once they slipped into their seats next to each other.

At the next table, Indonesia's Retno Marsudi and South Korea's Kang Kyung-wha - two of a rare breed of female foreign ministers - sought each other out for a handshake.

PM Lee said: "I hope that each one of us will bring back something memorable after this year's chairmanship."

This could be from knowing that some of the strides made this year will uplift people's lives, seeing the joy on the faces of youth who took part in Hyperplay, Asean's first e-sports and music festival, or experiencing the showcase of the region's rich cultures.

"Or, perhaps, you will miss Singapore food after all the meetings you have had here," quipped PM Lee.

Last night, Asean leaders got yet another taste of Singapore, dining on dishes inspired by local favourites - "and we have jazzed it up a little since most of you probably are already quite familiar with the local food", said PM Lee.

The spread included a play on laksa - oven-roasted pumpkin bisque with rice noodles and prawn ravioli, laced with laksa leaves - and a main course of slow-cooked Angus beef short ribs with black pepper sauce and Boston lobster seared with garlic butter, with garden vegetables stuffed in a kueh pie tee shell.

The local breakfast classic of kaya toast and kopi got a nod as well in the form of an egg-and-coconut dessert infused with pandan, and paired with wafers and coffee ice cream.

PM Lee pointed out that Asean has stood the test of time by embracing its diversity as a strength, and forging friendships based on mutual understanding and respect.

"We have laid the groundwork for a more united, resilient and innovative Asean - not just for ourselves, but for future generations," he said.

"I hope that we will also pass on to our youth this spirit of camaraderie and unity we have cultivated over the last half century so they will forge an even brighter future for Asean together."

ASEAN-China Summit: Asean and China should aim to conclude talks on maritime code of conduct in 3 years
Asean leaders met their counterparts from Australia, China, South Korea, Russia and Japan at summits yesterday PM Lee says he is encouraged by good progress made in negotiations
By Tan Dawn Wei, Deputy Foreign Editor, The Straits Times, 15 Nov 2018

Asean countries and China yesterday agreed to the early conclusion of a code of conduct (COC) for the South China Sea.

A day after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said he hopes to see consultation on the maritime accord sewn up in three years, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong agreed that parties should keep to that timeline.

Addressing fellow Asean leaders and Premier Li at the Asean-China Summit yesterday, PM Lee said he was encouraged by the good progress made in the negotiations for the code - which sets out norms of behaviour in the contested waters - that started earlier this year.

Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam all stake overlapping territorial claims on the disputed waterway.

"There will be complex and challenging negotiations. We should aim for the completion of the first reading of the code of conduct in 2019, and to complete it in three years as mentioned by Premier Li Keqiang," PM Lee said.

"In the meantime, all parties should maintain restraint, keep a conducive and stable environment for the COC negotiations to proceed smoothly," he added.

In his opening remarks at the meeting, which also marks the 15th anniversary of Asean-China Strategic Partnership, Mr Li said China is ready to work with the South-east Asian nations to conclude the code, saying it will "contribute to peace and stability in the South China Sea and be conducive to free trade".

In taking stock of the Asean-China relationship, PM Lee said the regional grouping and its East Asian neighbour share substantial and mutually beneficial ties, and their economic links have strengthened over the years. China has been Asean's top trading partner for eight consecutive years.

The two sides also completed the first Asean-China maritime exercise last month.

PM Lee made three suggestions to keep the momentum of positive ties going: Continue to demonstrate the strongest commitment to multilateral trade and economic cooperation, continue to engage in dialogue and practical cooperation to enhance peace and stability in the region, and continue to identify new areas of collaboration.

Besides the free trade agreement, fully liberalising the Asean-China Air Transport Agreement is one way of connecting the economies and drawing them closer, as will mobilising private capital and the use of financial institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Asian Development Bank to plug Asean's infrastructure financing gap, said PM Lee.

As for new collaborations, China and Asean have committed to working closer together in technological innovation and digital economy, as well as developing smart cities.

The two sides adopted an Asean-China Strategic Partnership Vision, a document which charts the direction of relations up until 2030.

They agreed to, among others, stand firm against growing protectionist and anti-globalisation sentiment and reaffirmed that international trade and investment are important engines for sustainable economic growth and development.

They also reiterated their commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability and safety in the South China Sea, including respect for freedom of navigation in and overflight above the waterway, and resolving disputes peacefully without resorting to the threat or use of force - and in keeping with international law.

3rd ASEAN-Russia Summit: New MOU to boost ASEAN-Russia trade
Agreement reinforces cooperation in areas such as Customs procedures, e-commerce
By Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 15 Nov 2018

A new agreement signed between Asean and the Eurasian Economic Commission yesterday is expected to contribute to trade, investment and economic expansion between South-east Asian countries and member states of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).

This comes as trade between the two blocs stood at US$35.7 billion (S$48.7 billion) last year, an increase of 40 per cent from 2016.

The signing yesterday was witnessed by leaders after the Asean-Russia Summit.

Russia is among five member states of the EAEU, which also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

The memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed reinforces Asean and the EAEU's intent to cooperate in areas such as Customs procedures and trade facilitation; sanitary and phytosanitary measures; technical regulations; e-commerce; trade in services and investment; as well as business development.

At the summit, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted the widening relationship between Asean and Russia, which was formally elevated to a strategic partnership.

PM Lee noted that Asean and Russia have worked together on a broad range of areas. These include the political-security, economic and socio-cultural fronts.

Yesterday, leaders also adopted a statement on cooperation in the field of security, and in the use of information and communication technologies.

"These deliverables highlight the breadth and scope of the Asean-Russia relationship," he said.

PM Lee said Singapore supports the upgrading of the Asean-Russia relationship to a strategic partnership, and that this will enhance cooperation in areas which are of interest to both sides.

In his opening remarks, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia attaches importance to its ties with Asean, and told leaders he is glad these ties are growing.

In recent years, he added, both sides have managed to accomplish a lot, including boosting political dialogue and coordinating approaches to issues faced in the Asia-Pacific region.

"We believe it is important to foster a regular dialogue between Asean and the Eurasian Economic Union," he added, noting that trade between Russia and Asean has increased in the past year by 35 per cent.

Mr Putin also said Russia is going to join Asean's plans of establishing a network of smart cities, and invited Asean representatives to attend the St Petersburg International Economic Forum and the Eastern Economic Forum in Russia next year.

At the summit, PM Lee suggested that Asean and Russia can strengthen ties by deepening trade and investment links - an endeavour that is helped by the new MOU.

"Singapore will continue working with Russia and Asean to identify new and innovative ways to deepen and broaden our engagement," he said.

Spirit of unity as ASEAN leaders gather
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, Indonesia Correspondent, The Straits Times, 14 Nov 2018

A leap of faith brought five South-east Asian nations together decades ago, giving rise to an unlikely brotherhood in a region rocked by hostilities and strife.

Yesterday, 51 years on, hard-won camaraderie united the leaders of Asean, now a 10-member grouping that has left its mark on the world stage.

Good cheer filled the air as the leaders filed into the Suntec convention centre, after motorcades whisked them through the bustling heart of downtown Singapore.

There, past security checkpoints that had turned the venue for the 33rd Asean Summit into an object of curiosity for tourists and shoppers at nearby malls, waited Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. He had handshakes and exuberant greetings for his fellow leaders - many of them now familiar friends.

There was a booming "Your Majesty" for Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, a 30-year veteran of Asean summits.

For Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad - the sole survivor of the old guard of formidable South-east Asian leaders that included PM Lee's father, Singapore's founding PM Lee Kuan Yew - a warm clasp of the hand and respectful nod.

Mrs Lee darted forward, moving away from her husband's side, where she had been greeting the spouses of Asean leaders with cheek kisses, to take the hand of Tun Dr Mahathir's wife.

She would accompany Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohamad Ali - who had been with Dr Mahathir yesterday on his whirlwind schedule of commitments - out of the greeting area, hand in hand, heads bent in conversation, before resuming her post.

Asean's leaders are in town for a marathon series of meetings that marks the final milestone of Singapore's one-year chairmanship of the regional grouping.

It will be a time to take stock of Asean's achievements - and discuss how to take the group forward at a time of global upheaval. There was no glitz or glamour, no chandeliers or gold trimming - but as its leaders came face to face once more in a modest convention hall for the summit's opening ceremony, an air of celebration prevailed.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo sang along to a Singapore vocal group's rendition of Secret Garden's You Raised Me Up.

The Asean spirit of regional cooperation and friendship was celebrated, with Ms Erlinda Uy Koe, the chair emeritus of Autism Society Philippines, honoured with the inaugural Asean Prize to recognise an individual or organisation that has promoted intra-Asean collaboration.

PM Lee had, at a meeting of Asean foreign ministers in August, noted the grouping's five founding members took a leap of faith in 1967 when they decided to band together, setting aside "old suspicions and rivalries".

But divides still remain.

Just before the reunion yesterday, Dr Mahathir had told reporters he was disappointed with Myanmar's handling of the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine State. But at the ceremony - as he sat with Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to his right, in keeping with the alphabetical order that determines seating - the grouping presented a united, unruffled front.

It was a showcase of Asean's conviction that the grouping is greater than the sum of its parts.

"Each member state has its own strategic outlook, political calculations and national interests. Despite this, Asean has shown that it is still able to work together and find common ground," PM Lee said.

"By coming together in one collective voice, instead of going our separate ways as 10 disparate countries, Asean members have strengthened our standing in the world."

Opening ceremony of the 33rd ASEAN Summit: Multilateralism a core factor in ensuring Asean's growth and stability, says Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
Asean nations must work together amid global challenges
He stresses need for multilateral cooperation amid threats like terrorism, climate change
By Royston Sim, Deputy Political Editor, The Straits Times, 14 Nov 2018

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday underlined Asean's strong belief that multilateralism and working together are key to the region's growth and stability.

This comes against the backdrop of a shifting geopolitical landscape that has seen some countries, including major powers, resort to unilateral actions and bilateral deals. "The international order is at a turning point," he said, adding that, at the same time, threats such as terrorism and climate change loomed on the horizon.

Asean will work with its external partners to tackle the challenges facing an interconnected world, PM Lee said at the opening ceremony of the Asean Summit.

"We are determined to maintain an open, inclusive and Asean-centric regional architecture," he added.

Singapore is the Asean chair this year, the 51st year since the regional bloc was formed. The chairmanship is rotated among Asean's 10 members annually.

PM Lee noted that the free, open and rules-based multilateral system, which has underpinned Asean's growth and stability, was now under stress. "Countries, including major powers, are resorting to unilateral actions and bilateral deals, and even explicitly repudiating multilateral approaches and institutions," he said in his address at the Suntec convention centre.

It is unclear if the world will settle into new rules and norms, or if the international order will break up into rival blocs, PM Lee added.

He noted that these strategic trends of big-power competition and shifts against multilateralism are pulling Asean member states in different directions.

While each member state has its own strategic outlook and national interests, Asean has shown it can still work together and find common ground. By coming together in one collective voice, the grouping has strengthened its standing in the world, he added.

He pointed to how Asean-centric platforms like the East Asia Summit (EAS) have enabled Asean countries to engage with major countries and international organisations. EAS members, including China, Russia and the United States, are in Singapore for the forum.

Noting that Asean is slated to be the world's fourth-largest economy by 2030, he said its future is bright.

But he also listed the new challenges it needs to address, including disruption from digital technology and transnational threats like terrorism and climate change. "All these mean that multilateral cooperation is now more urgent than ever," he said, adding no country can deal with these complex challenges alone.

Highlighting the need to pool minds and resources to tackle these issues, PM Lee said that is the reason Singapore chose "resilience" and "innovation" as the themes of its chairmanship.

PM Lee's remarks came at the end of a day where Thai Prime Minister and incoming Asean chair Prayut Chan-o-cha, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang all spoke of the importance of staying open and lowering barriers to trade.

Mr Prayut said Thailand will push for connectivity among Asean members to strengthen business and investments, while Tun Dr Mahathir said trade issues should be resolved through multilateral dialogues. Mr Li pledged that China will continue to open up its market.

The Asean Summit continues today, with discussions expected to centre on trade ties. Leaders will also discuss the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a pact involving Asean countries and Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.

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