BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN: ASEAN has an ambitious agenda which it is in the process of fulfilling, said Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday. Addressing Southeast Asian leaders at the 22nd ASEAN Summit in Brunei, he said the agenda includes the ASEAN Economic Community, the Connectivity Masterplan and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. He urged the grouping to press on with the commitments to establish an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) which will increase opportunities for the ASEAN member states to prosper and reduce the likelihood of conflict.
The ASEAN Summit in Brunei over the past two days has been a positive one, according to Mr Lee's assessment after the Leaders' Retreat session.
He said Brunei has developed a consensus among the members and taken an even hand on issues.
One subject discussed was the South China Sea, which Mr Lee described as a test of ASEAN's credibility and hopes ASEAN can start formal negotiations on the Code of Conduct with China soon. Mr Lee said: "The fundamental issue is going to take a long time to be solved. All we can do is to acknowledge it, manage it and work towards a Code of Conduct, based on sound principles. And we have settled on some principles after last year's AMM (ASEAN Ministerial Meeting) which did not have a communique.
"There are the six-point principles which everybody has agreed to and will be reaffirmed in the communique. We agreed that we have to work towards a Code of Conduct. It has to be ASEAN's ten countries -- all involved in discussing the Code of Conduct with China.
"ASEAN is ready to start, we are waiting for China. When they are ready to begin, we will be there. And we encourage China to start negotiations soon because at least with a Code of Conduct, you avoid having some mishaps, some clash unintended at sea, leading to an escalation, leading to tensions and maybe worse.
"That is a point of view that all the ASEAN leaders have adopted, including the claimant states. I think is a step forward. It doesn't mean we have solved the problem or that we are totally identical in our views, but at least on that basic principle we have reached consensus.
"There were no dissenting voices. Even Cambodia was in favour of working on a Code of Conduct."
One of the key targets that ASEAN has set itself is the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by 2015.
Prime Minister Lee explained that it is important for ASEAN to invite its dialogue partners to take part in the grouping's various initiatives for win-win outcomes.
He noted that there is less than three years to the 31 December 2015 deadline for the AEC and he is glad that almost 80 per cent of the blueprint has been implemented. What is needed now is for ASEAN to focus on outstanding priorities like services liberalisation and trade facilitation.
Mr Lee said: "Well, there will be sensitive products, I mean agriculture, rice for example, is very difficult to do. There will be sensitive areas like aviation and I think services are inherently more difficult to do than goods, because (for) goods, you can state the tariffs at a certain level.
"(For) services, there are many considerations -- you are talking about standards, you are talking about safety rules, you are talking about vital sanitary requirements, so many types of regulations.
"So these are non-tariff barriers. You can say in principle that you want to make it freer but in practice when you make the rules, it's not easy."
PM Lee added: "Unless ASEAN develops an effective economic community, a lot of the emphasis and focus of investors of the developed countries and the trading partners will be on China and Northeast Asia, South Korea and other parts of the world and we will lose out."
ASEAN is also going ahead with talks to kick-start the ASEAN-Hong Kong Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Mr Lee said that in principle Singapore supports free trade and has very good relations with Hong Kong.
He believes the FTA will be able to establish a broader basis for Singapore and Hong Kong to work together in both areas of goods and services. - CNA/al
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