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Singapore Goes for Quiet ASEAN Diplomacy

Singapore Goes for Quiet ASEAN DiplomacySingapore Goes for Quiet ASEAN Diplomacy

Singapore is settling into its one-year rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at a time when the region’s economic growth is outperforming the world. But the possibility of unpredictable political and economic changes both within the region and beyond present the city state with both opportunities and threats.

Some expect Singapore, as a regional hub and perhaps ASEAN’s most open economy, to take a strong leadership role. But the Singapore approach thus far has been somewhat circumspect, Nikkei reported.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the ASEAN chairmanship handover ceremony in November said Singapore would promote the theme of “resilient and innovative” and encourage its fellow ASEAN members to uphold a rules-based regional order to deal with emerging security threats, including terrorism, cybercrime and climate change.

Among other aims, he said his government would also push regional economic integration to enhance connectivity, focus on innovative ways to leverage digital technologies, and scale up the skills and capabilities of ASEAN citizens.

On the economic and trade front, Singapore intends to focus on e-commerce and the digital economy, according to its minister for trade and industry, Lim Hng Kiang. The priority is to streamline regional trade rules governing e-commerce, improve digital connectivity for businesses with a focus on smaller enterprises, and improve trade facilitation in the region. These are realistic and deliverable goals following the creation of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015.

Lee’s statements do not reflect false modesty. They stem from a recognition of ASEAN’s strengths and limits in the face of huge shifts ranging from the rise of China to US President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda.

Trump, who visited the region in October, has been active in Asia in his first year, but his administration still lacks clear priorities and has yet to set out a fuller agenda with ASEAN.

China has put forward a bold plan with its Belt and Road Initiative and, while still inchoate, this is re-setting relations beyond the competing claims in the South China Sea. For US-China ties, many predict rough patches over a range of issues like North Korea’s nuclear threat and US-China trade.

Given these circumstances, consensus and quiet diplomacy has its uses—more so now than ever before. Singapore has already proposed that leaders and ministers meet in closed sessions, away from the media, to discuss sensitive issues in confidence.

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