Asean faces challenges, but there is great economic potential: Vivian Balakrishnan

Indonesia is this year's Asean chair, and all major Asean events will be hosted there.

Tan Min-Wei | February 04, 2023, 08:13 PM

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Asean Foreign Ministers gathered in Jakarta, Indonesia for the Asean Coordinating Council Meeting and the Asean Foreign Ministers’ Retreat on Feb. 3 and 4.

During a doorstop interview after the summit, Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan spoke about three issues, Timor Leste, Myanmar, and Asean's untapped potential amidst soaring global tensions.

11th member

The first Asean summit of the year, now with Indonesia as chair, started on an upbeat note as the regional bloc welcomed the Timor Leste foreign minister.

She was attending the summit for the first time since the country received its in-principle acceptance in November 2022.

Vivian said that Timor Leste's participation as an observer and having full access to all Asean discussions was significant, and that Asean members were also supportive of the country's full participation.

Vivian said that he had reassured Timor Leste's foreign minister of Singapore's full support to help them bear the responsibilities and obligations that came with Asean membership.

Singapore would also provide an Asean readiness package for Timor Leste, that would help the country enhance their capabilities, human resource development, and give them the diplomatic and economic tools they would need to fully participate.

Timor Leste for its part was pleased to have the opportunity to participate, and was gaining a better and deeper appreciation for the weight of responsibilities and obligations.

Asean development, cause for optimism

Vivian also emphasised the great potential that Asean had, even amidst rising global tensions like the U.S.-China jockeying and a "hot war in Europe".

He wanted to emphasise the "optimistic position" that Asean itself was in, and that it was a "bustling, dynamic region".

For instance, 60 per cent of the nearly 661 million people in the region were under the age of 35.

Asean also had a combined GDP of US$3 trillion (S$ 3.97 trillion), which is "set to double" within the next 20 years, which would make it the fourth largest economy in the world.

Enhanced cooperation

The bloc is also looking at advancing negotiations for the Asean digital economy framework, which would increase digital literacy within Asean's population, and improve connectivity between its members.

This means deeper digital integration and interoperability of systems, such as for digital payments, trade facilitation, clearing customs, amongst other elements.

The bloc ultimately wanted to create within Asean an atmosphere that promotes entrepreneurship and innovation.

This was also true in terms of the green economy, where all Asean nations recognised the need to either decarbonise or at least reduce their carbon footprint.

Vivian highlighted the already in-progress power integration project that involved Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, which he hoped would be a pathfinder to enhancing energy integration.

Maritime economy

Vivian also referred to the "blue" economy, or Asean's maritime economy, and discussed efforts towards developing it.

This would be done with a sustainable and resilient approach towards using, conserving, and evaluating Asean's maritime resources.

Asean, Vivian said, was "replete with opportunities" for trade and investment on all these fronts.

Balloons lift tensions

The ministers met while tensions were ratcheting up elsewhere.

Vivian mentioned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as new developments such as the United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponing a long awaited diplomatic visit to China.

Over the past week, a Chinese weather balloon was spotted drifting over the U.S. state of Montana, leading to accusations of espionage.

According to the Guardian, the Chinese government has owned up to the balloon, apologising and saying that it was a weather balloon that had been blown off course. U.S. officials however have said that it is a surveillance device.

The incident has resulted in Blinken postponing his trip until "circumstances are more conducive". Not helping matters is the fact that Montana is, as the Guardian says, the "home" of the U.S.'s nuclear missile force.

Asean's overlapping friends

Vivian however, reiterated Asean's position of "overlapping circles of friends".

Asean, he said, did not want to be viewed "through the prism of rivalry" between the two superpowers, and instead should be viewed "on our own merits".

What the region is interested in, is trade and investment.

The region is replete with opportunities for trade and investment for both superpowers, as well as Europe, and the more engaged they were with Southeast Asia, the more opportunities there were.

But Vivian also emphasised it was important for Asean to maintain unity and centrality.

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Top image via Vivian Balakrishnan/Facebook