THERE will be myriad benefits for Singapore when ASEAN member countries launch a more economically integrated ASEAN Community at the end of next year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said here last night.
These include more opportunities for trade and greater access overseas for Singaporean companies, he told the Singapore media at the end of the ASEAN Summit.
But 2015 is not the end of ASEAN's work, Mr Lee said, calling the ASEAN Community a milestone on a longer journey.
Establishing the community - which includes targets for greater economic integration and freer movement of goods and capital - is a goal members must focus on achieving over the next year.
"It will open up more opportunities for investments, for trade, exports for our companies, better access for our companies in other ASEAN countries, and also better connectivity: air links, and therefore more convenient transportation," he said.
Progress on achieving these goals shows members have met about 80 per cent of targets. The remaining 20 per cent involve more complex issues like non-tariff barriers and liberalisation of services industries.
These may be difficult to achieve but they are worthwhile, said Mr Lee who, at the start of the summit, said members should continue to seek ways to keep their economies relevant and competitive.
"The point of the next one year is to focus on these remaining pieces and get as much of it done as possible," he said. "But December 2015 is not the end of ASEAN's objectives - it's a milestone. We should get as much of it (done) as we can, and beyond that, we are working on a further agenda to take ASEAN a next step forward."
Malaysia, as the new ASEAN chair, will set up a taskforce of top officials from member countries "to define this next goal for ASEAN", he said.
At the summit, Mr Lee repeatedly highlighted the importance of ASEAN centrality - having the grouping in control of key decisions affecting the region - and said this was necessary to effectively handle major tasks.
On whether ASEAN could maintain this position, he said: "Centrality is not something which you can declare and claim. It's something which you have to earn from your relevance, from your effectiveness, from your cohesiveness.
The more ASEAN can play that role, the more other countries find us useful, the more we can say that ASEAN centrality is a reality."
Part of the reason for the region's growth and prosperity is the United States' longstanding regional presence, Mr Lee said at a session between ASEAN and the US, where he thanked President Barack Obama for keeping ASEAN at the forefront of US policy.
But Mr Lee said the ASEAN-US relationship will face challenges ahead and both sides must consider how to address them together.
At a separate ASEAN-China meeting, he said both sides prized regional peace and stability. This hinged on positive ties among powers like the US and China, and peaceful and mature management of difficult issues like the South China Sea. He noted China's commitment to deepening regional and economic integration and strengthening existing open and inclusive regional architecture.
Mr Lee also acknowledged there will always be urgent issues and domestic priorities to distract leaders from the idea of regional economic integration, but said inaction will cause countries to be less competitive and relevant.
Singapore regards it as important "because we are small, and so having the whole of ASEAN come together is important to us".
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