WASHINGTON, DC, May 14 — The timing of a summit between the United States and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) — coming in the midst of the Russian-Ukraine war and just as countries emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic — and the substance of the summit bodes well for the Asean region and Singapore, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday (May 13).

“I think that it will also show that the US continues to be focused on the Asia-Pacific, even despite all its other many busy preoccupations. That is good for us because Singapore’s view has been for a long time that the US plays a constructive, in fact, indispensable role in our region. 

“Nobody else can replace them in that role and the regional balance is shifting but all the more we appreciate the US continuing to remain engaged,” said Lee, who was speaking to reporters after attending the summit in Washington, DC.

Describing the summit as “a very significant moment in world affairs”, Lee noted that this is the first time in six years that Asean leaders were being hosted to a summit meeting by the US president.

The last time this occurred was back in 2016 with former US President Barack Obama 2016, in Sunnylands, California, pointed out Lee.

Lee is currently in the US capital to attend the summit, which took place on Thursday and Friday to commemorate 45 years of US-Asean relations.

During the meeting, Lee and other leaders from Asean nations met with US President Joe Biden, US Vice President Kamala Harris, as well as other US cabinet secretaries and business leaders.

They discussed various global and regional issues, as well as ways to strengthen cooperation in areas such as the economy, maritime security and climate change. 

Both sides also released a joint vision statement following the end of the summit on Friday.

Elaborating on the meeting’s key takeaways, Lee said that the US had set aside US$150 million (RM660 million) for various kinds of cooperation projects ranging from cooperation in maritime issues to public health.

The US also took the opportunity to discuss its proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which “quite a number of Asean countries are interested in”, said Lee.

“I think some of (the Asean countries) will pick up and will participate in the launch, which will be in a few weeks’ time,” he added.

Russia-Ukraine conflict

The joint statement released on Friday addressed the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, although it did not mention Russia. 

The statement reaffirmed the US and Asean’s respect for sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity and reiterated their call for compliance with the United Nations’ charter and international law.

The joint statement also underlined the importance of an immediate cessation of hostilities and expressed support for a peaceful solution.

Lee said that Asean’s statement on the issue “is not as strong as it could be” as different member states have different views.

He was responding to a question from the media on how likely it was for Asean to take a more forceful position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine given the wide range of views among Asean members.

Lee said that Singapore’s statement on the issue is “the most forthright” and the country has issued some targeted sanctions on Russia

Similarly, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has also been “quite unambiguous and emphatic“ about his explanation that there should be absolute rules against the violation of territorial integrity and sovereignty of other countries. 

On the other hand, other member states who have more significant relations with Russia have adopted more nuanced responses to the issue by talking about the conflict in Ukraine without mentioning who the aggressor is, noted Lee. 

“They think it may be helpful. Well, they have taken that position but we have each made our stand clear,” he added.

US and Asean ‘deeply concerned’ about Myanmar 

The joint statement from the summit also said that the countries were “deeply concerned” over the crisis in Myanmar, which has been under military rule since its junta ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi last February. 

Myanmar junta leader Min Aung Hlaing was excluded from the summit, after Biden said he would follow Asean’s lead by inviting a non-political figure from Myanmar. There was no Myanmar representative present at the meeting.

The statement urged for the timely and complete implementation of the Five-Point Consensus, which was adopted by Asean last April.

The consensus calls for immediate cessation of violence and constructive dialogue in Myanmar. It also called for a special envoy of the Asean chair to facilitate mediation of the dialogue process between different parties in Myanmar and for the special envoy to meet with all parties concerned. 

It also specifies that Asean shall provide humanitarian assistance to Myanmar through the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management.

The joint vision statement from the summit said that the countries will “redouble” their collective efforts towards a peaceful solution in Myanmar that also reflects a continued commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms, as outlined in the Asean Charter. — TODAY