ASEAN members have made substantial progress towards a more tightly-knit region, but a peaceful environment is critical to further lift the lot of the people, the grouping's top official said.
"The interlinkages between peace and stability and economic development and prosperity are even greater," ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh said in an interview yesterday.
Leaders of all 10 members will take stock of the grouping's progress when they meet at the ASEAN Summit today, just eight months before the ASEAN Community is declared by December.
Giving an update, Mr Minh said members have implemented 92 per cent to 93 per cent of measures under the ASEAN Community blueprint, with 90.5 per cent of measures under the more ambitious ASEAN Economic Community met. Where some fall short, it is often "not for lack of political will, but also for lack of resources", he added.
On the one hand, ASEAN's achievements have helped enhance the grouping's role in the region. But on the other hand, ASEAN faces the challenge of maintaining its centrality - where member countries remain in charge of the region's destiny.
Mr Minh's comments come amid concern from some over recent Chinese reclamation activities in the South China Sea, where China has overlapping territorial claims with four ASEAN states.
The issue of ASEAN centrality and unity was also raised by several foreign ministers.
In a forceful speech, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said: "ASEAN should assert its leadership, centrality and solidarity."
But Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said the matter had to be handled constructively, "since it has the very potential of putting to naught all ASEAN's past and present efforts to ensure peace, security and stability in the South China Sea". "ASEAN must avoid any action that would be counter-productive and bring us further apart, either among ourselves or with China."
Speaking to The Star daily earlier, Mr Minh said it was urgent for ASEAN to engage China in a more substantive discussion on a code of conduct to better manage disputes. "There has been a widening gap between the diplomatic track and the actual condition at sea," he said.
Separately, Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said that, broadly, the consensus was that members had to try and reduce tensions. On a code of conduct, he added: "We never thought... it was going to be done quickly. But we certainly think it can be done a little bit faster."
Asked whether territorial disputes got in the way of progress in other areas, he said the facts on the ground were the very substantial economic, security and political ties between China and every country in ASEAN, and with ASEAN as a whole.
"We will not be doing our duty to our countries and our peoples if we forget that," he said. The key is not to allow disputes to interfere with the rest of the relationship, he added.
ASEAN ministers yesterday agreed to a proposal by Laos to host next year's two summits back to back in November for better efficiency.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong arrived yesterday and will attend the summit today.
This article was first published on April 27, 2015.
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