BOAO, Hainan (The Straits TImes/Asia News Network): In a troubled global environment that includes the United States and China being at odds over many intractable issues, countries in Asia need to draw close and work together and with external partners, said Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
They should build “a dense mesh of cooperation and interdependence, rather than a hub and spokes model” that will make the region stronger and more resilient.
Such links include regional groupings, which are not mutually exclusive but have varying memberships and often overlap with one another, he added.
“Not every country needs to be in every group,” said Lee.
“But collectively, the different groupings build a resilient and interlocking network of cooperation among countries in Asia. At the same time, these regional groupings deepen ties between Asia and the rest of the world. And this gives our external partners stakes in Asia’s peace and prosperity.”
Lee was speaking at the annual Boao Forum for Asia, described as the “Asian Davos”, where world and corporate leaders have gathered to discuss topics including the digital economy and security.
The Singapore leader’s attendance at this conference on the southern island of Hainan is part of his one-week official visit to China at the invitation of Chinese Premier Li Qiang, who delivered a keynote speech on Thursday.
Lee, who last spoke at the Boao Forum in 2018, when President Xi Jinping also attended, cited as a key example of connectivity Asean which has helped initiate the world’s biggest free trade agreement – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – which counts China among its 15 members.
Mechanisms such as the East Asia Summit, Asean Plus Three and Asean Regional Forum have also brought major players together and offered neutral platforms for productive dialogue and engagement, he said.
And then, there are other complementary regional groupings such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework initiated by the US, and the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (Depa).
China is not a member of these, although it has applied to join the CPTPP and Depa.
Calling for the region to strengthen its ties with China at the same time, Lee said that economic cooperation between China and its Asian neighbours will be stronger if it is underpinned by a stable, broader relationship which will encourage mutual trust.
“There are many bilateral and regional issues that need to be resolved,” he acknowledged.
“They should be managed in the spirit of goodwill and cooperation, peacefully and in accordance with international law, giving full weight to the perspectives and interests of all countries big and small.”
He also called for Asia to always remain an open region and nurture ties with the US, Europe, and other parts of the world.
American and European investments in Asia have continued to grow, while Asian states are sewing up free trade deals with European nations and even Latin America.
These economic links across different parts of the world will stimulate more interest in these countries to engage Asia.
“This will encourage healthy competition, spur innovation and partnerships, moderate tensions when they arise, and make for a more stable and balanced region,” said Lee.
China’s role in all of this is substantial, given how crucial its economy is in Asia, added Lee, as he urged the East Asian giant to continue opening up and supporting regional cooperation.
He will travel to Beijing next, where he will meet Xi, National People’s Congress chairman Zhao Leji, Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference chairman Wang Huning and Beijing party secretary Yin Li.
He will also meet Li again on Saturday, when the two are expected to discuss more areas of cooperation and taking the bilateral relationship to the next level.
Li will also host the Singapore delegation, including Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Development Sim Ann, and Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Law Rahayu Mahzam, to a lunch.