Singapore, Nov 13 : The 33rd summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) opened here on Tuesday with a call for upholding multilateralism and international cooperation to address economic, environmental and terrorism-related challenges.
The summit, a gathering of leaders of Asean’s 10 member countries, will review the regional bloc’s achievements in 2018 in pushing forward community building and integration while mapping out a new course for the year ahead, Xinhua news agency reported.
In a speech at the opening ceremony of the summit, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted the strength of the bloc in times of international uncertainty.
“The existing free, open and rules-based multilateral system, which has underpinned Asean’s growth and stability, has come under stress. Countries, including major powers, are resorting to unilateral actions and bilateral deals.
“Asean is greater than the sum of its parts. By coming together in one collective voice… Asean members have strengthened our standing in the world.”
During Singapore’s chairmanship in 2018, Asean member countries redoubled integration efforts and came up with concrete measures that laid the groundwork for a “united, effective and relevant Asean”, Lee said.
Asean reaffirmed its commitment to multilateral trade and made substantial progress towards completing negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), he added.
Lee also called for international cooperation in tackling non-traditional and trans-national threats, including terrorism and climate change.
“These common challenges are complex and unprecedented. We need to pool our ideas and resources to tackle these issues together… multilateralism remains an important basis for international cooperation and for the region’s growth and stability.”
An ongoing trade dispute between Washington and Beijing has threatened to weaken the Asean economy, which was forecast to become the fourth biggest in the world by 2030, after the US, China and the EU.
Lee said the integration process implemented by the group sought to attract investors to some of the most vibrant economies in the region.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the Prime Ministers and Presidents of the Asean countries will meet representatives of allies such as the US, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.
The most significant absentee at the forum was US President Donald Trump, although the US was represented by Vice-President Mike Pence, who was set to take part in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in Papua New Guinea later this week.
It was not clear if Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Pence would hold a bilateral meeting during the summit to discuss the trade dispute.
The humanitarian crisis of Myanmar’s minority Rohingya community was also expected to dominate talks between the summit’s participants, although Lee steered clear of the topic in his speech.
Climate change threats in the region, terrorism and the shift to digital technology were other issues in focus at the forum. The opening ceremony of the summit was set to be followed by a formal dinner for the leaders.
Asean consists of Myanmar, Brunei, Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Meanwhile, Asean was unable to conclude negotiations for the RCEP during a summit in Singapore, postponing them till 2019, Philippines Secretary of Trade and Industry Ramon Lopez said.
The RCEP is a proposed free trade agreement between Asean and six Asia-Pacific states with which the regional bloc has existing Free Trade Agreements — namely China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
“We are determined to finish everything by next year,” Lopez said.