China and India are the new powers which are growing in strength and influence as the global strategic balance is shifting which has thrown up new opportunities for cooperation for ASEAN, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said today.
Lee was speaking while welcoming regional leaders at the 32nd ASEAN summit here.
"The global strategic balance is shifting, and so is the regional balance," he said adding "New powers, including China and India, are growing in strength and influence. This has opened up new opportunities for ASEAN member states as we expand our cooperation with them".
"This has opened up new opportunities for ASEAN member states as we expand our cooperation with them but it also calls for astute statesmanship and deft diplomacy because ASEAN member states maintain our friendship with all powers, old and new," he said.
At the same time, the open, rules-based multilateral trading system which has underpinned the growth of ASEAN is under pressure, he pointed out.
"The political mood in many countries has shifted against free trade. In particular, the recent trade tensions between the US and China are worrying concerns," said Lee.
ASEAN countries will have to react to these major external trends.
"The 10 of us need to work together, align our different political and economic interests, and strengthen our efforts to build a coherent and effective ASEAN community," said Lee.
"We have to stay relevant and forward-looking, as a 50-year-old regional grouping so that we remain central to the region's architecture and future," he said.
"How can the 10-member ASEAN do this? The short answer is: we need to strengthen ASEAN centrality and find new areas and fresh commitment to work together," Lee explained.
ASEAN can only maintain its centrality if it is a substantial endeavour, and if its members see value in the shared enterprise, he said.
The alternative of a looser ASEAN, where each member state is left to fend for itself, and goes its own separate way, will make ASEAN less relevant not only to its members but also its partners and to other powers, he said.
"Individually, the ASEAN member states will find it hard to make much impact on their own but when we speak in one collective ASEAN voice, we can be effective," Lee stressed.
"Therefore, it is important that we redouble our integration and community-building efforts," he urged the grouping of 10 Southeast Asian countries.
ASEAN has to adapt and integrate further, to remain a central, dynamic driving force that can deal with the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century, he said.
Singapore's chairmanship themes of 'Resilience and Innovation for ASEAN' this year were proposed because they encapsulate the situation that the region is in today.
"We need to be resilient to both conventional threats, and also unconventional threats such as terrorism and cyber-attacks," stressed Lee.
Southeast Asia is at peace, but these threats are very real. Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to propagate its ideology and foment trouble in Southeast Asia, despite having been defeated militarily in the Middle East.
"We are also seeing more cyber-attacks as we push for digitalisation," he said.
At the same time, countries need to be innovative and make creative use of technology to grow their economies.
"If ASEAN members can cooperate in this effort, we will strengthen our economic community," said Lee who leads the summit with Singapore being the chair of the grouping.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The summit is being held from April 25-28.
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