Cooperation will help East Asia thrive: PM

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei - East Asia must work together to foster growth and maintain regional peace and stability if it is to thrive in an uncertain and rapidly changing world, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday at the East Asia Summit (EAS).

Speaking to 17 other world leaders, Mr Lee cited the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as a good example of economic cooperation.

The free trade pact, which the ASEAN 10 are negotiating with six partners - Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea - should be kept open and inclusive, he said, so future ASEAN free trade agreement (FTA) partners can join in later.

The 16 countries must also aim for a good quality agreement, he said.

The RCEP, which is due to be concluded by 2015, will comprise almost half of the world's population and about a third of its gross domestic product.

At the ASEAN Plus Three Summit, he called for the partnership between ASEAN and China, Japan and South Korea to be strengthened but stressed that it must stay connected to the rest of the world. "Stability and growth depends on us being open to other regions and organisations," he said.

For instance, the Singapore-based ASEAN Plus Three macroeconomic research office, which monitors the region for potential financial troubles and renders help in crises, should deepen its ties with global institutions like the International Monetary Fund.

"Should a financial crisis hit, combining regional resources with the IMF's will restore market confidence sooner," he said.

At the EAS, Mr Lee and other leaders touched on tensions in the South China Sea, through which a third of global shipping passes.

Many countries thus have an interest in peace and security as well as freedom of navigation through the sea, he said.

"All states should encourage the peaceful resolution of disputes, and eschew use of force," he said, adding that he looked forward to the early conclusion of a code of conduct between ASEAN and China.

Mr Lee also emphasised education as an important area of cooperation. Singapore was one of several countries that signed a memorandum of understanding with India yesterday on the establishment of Nalanda University, a project to revive an ancient seat of learning. Construction on it and classes are due to start next year.

Singapore is helping to raise funds for the university's library while former foreign minister George Yeo sits on the Nalanda governing board.

On ties between ASEAN and the United Nations, Mr Lee said Singapore has benefited from UN expertise, from advice on economic development and public health in its early years to the more recent fight against Sars.

Singapore is "happy and privileged" to give back through means such as the Global Centre for Public Service Excellence which it set up with the UN Development Programme last year.

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