TODAY Online - PM Lee calls for Asean to speak with one voice on regional challenges

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday called for greater unity among Asean member states.

Asean summit

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday called for greater unity among Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) member states, amid differences in geopolitical issues that have dented the grouping’s credibility.

Speaking during a plenary session of the Asean Summit in Vientiane, Laos, he noted that, individually, the voices of member states carry limited weight but with more than 600 million people in the region speaking as one, Asean will “have a more effective voice and stronger bargaining power”.

“It is not always easy for Asean to speak with one voice — it depends on issues and on certain issues, we have different positions but we must not let such differences divide us,” said Mr Lee, warning that a divided grouping will not be relevant and valuable to dialogue partners.

The Laos summit is the first since the 10-member grouping established the Asean Community last year.

Asean’s credibility has been dented as it has struggled to forge a common position over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, with some member states — notably Cambodia and Laos — said to have come under pressure from Beijing.

An arbitration court in The Hague ruled on July 12 that China had no historic title over the busy waterway and had breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights there. The decision infuriated Beijing, which dismissed the court’s authority to rule on the matter.

At the plenary session yesterday, Mr Lee said that as the world continues to change, the Asean Community will continue to be a work-in-progress. Besides strengthening unity, he also called for Asean to streamline its processes and address transboundary challenges in Asean, including transboundary haze and Zika.

“These are areas we can work on improving the Asean community. If we focus on them, and stay united, I believe we can overcome our challenges and prosper together,” he said.

Mr Lee noted that the Philippines, as Asean chair for next year, has proposed a review of the Asean Charter which codifies Asean’s norms, rules and values.

“It is a good idea, but we should go about it in a very careful way,” he said. “We should be very focused in our approach, and identify the sections that require an update, and work on that.”

He said that one area Asean should look at is its number of meetings, adding that he was happy that Laos is holding two back-to-back summits this year amid efforts to review working methods.

“(This has) freed up capacity for Asean to have two very good standalone summits with the United States and Russia,” said Mr Lee, referring to the Asean-US Special Leaders’ Summit held in California in February and the Asean-Russia Summit held in Sochi in May.

He said he is heartened that regional leaders have taken steps to address transboundary haze, adding that the next step is to fully operationalise the Asean Haze Monitoring System which was adopted three years ago, as well as the Asean Coordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution Control.

“This will send a strong signal to errant companies that have been causing the haze pollution that we are serious and will take action to tackle the problem.”

Today, Mr Lee will attend the Asean Summit retreat session in the morning, followed by summits with Asean’s dialogue partners including China, Japan, South Korea and Australia.

Source: TODAY Online

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