Opening proceedings, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: “The political mood in many countries has shifted against free trade and, in particular, the recent trade tensions between the United States and China are worrying concerns.
“Asean countries will have to react to these major external trends,” Lee told the summit.
Donald Trump has threatened to impose tariffs on up to US$150 billion of Chinese imports, and China has vowed to retaliate against US exports.
Lee made it clear that Asean should look towards Beijing, despite Singapore’s ongoing security ties with Washington.
“The global strategic balance is shifting, and so is the regional balance,” Lee said. “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.”
For much of Asean, the US and China are the two biggest trading partners allowing leaders to focus on wider economic concerns.
Asean is also working on initiatives to jointly tackle the threat of extremism and cyber attacks, as well as to promote trade and cross-border e-payment systems.
Other issues like Cambodia’s silencing of its independent media and dissolving the main opposition party are being largely ignored by the bloc that largely operates by consensus.
Elsewhere, the Philippine war on drugs has left thousands dead in extrajudicial killings and, in Myanmar, thousands are fleeing to China to avoid fighting in Kachin State. In Rakhine State, 700,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh since August to escape military-led ethnic cleansing.
In a statement, Asean leaders encouraged Myanmar and Bangladesh to work on their “shared commitment to carry out the voluntary return” of the Rohingya.
Lee said Asean’s leaders had agreed that the refugees’ return must be carried out “in a safe, secure and dignified way, without undue delay”.
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said: “Asean needs to pressure Myanmar to be accountable for what’s happening and to investigate or allow investigators like us, Human Rights Watch and others, to go into these areas, ascertain who is responsible for the atrocities committed against the Rohingya, and then hold them accountable. Again, we’re seeing nothing from Asean.”
Asean traditionally avoids mentioning other members’ domestic issues, with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s criticism of the Rohingya crisis a rare exception.
Singapore greets Asean’s other leaders. Picture credit: YouTube