Asean is not interested in doing business exclusively with one great power: George Yeo

SINGAPORE – It would be a mistake to think that Asean is interested in doing business exclusively with one major power, former Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yeo said on Tuesday.

Emphasizing how important diversification is for the region and its continued growth, he said: “When other major powers see their presence in Southeast Asia as a zero-sum game, they are making a big mistake.

“This does not mean that because we are close to China, we are not close to them. It’s actually the opposite. The closer we are to China, the more we see our (trade) accounts grow, the more uncomfortable we are that our economy will be constrained.”

This would mean that countries in the region would be more welcoming to other major powers, he added.

Mr Yeo, a visiting scholar at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, made these points about the regional bloc during his keynote address to open the annual Regional Outlook Forum.

Organized by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute to address key economic and political issues facing the region, the forum was held at the Shangri-La Hotel. For the first time since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was held as a personal event.

In his address, Mr Yeo also emphasized the role Asean can play in global affairs by helping to break down barriers and facilitate discussions.

He pointed out that multipolarity is not naturally stable but inherently dynamic, given that some forces are stronger than others, so there will always be a need for talks. “In this way, Asean can play a special role,” said Mr Yeo.

He zoomed in on the recent Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Bali last November and said their leader, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, had done an impressive job of handling a complicated situation amid tensions between powers as diverse as the United States and Russia.

Under Indonesia’s supervision, the G-20, where United States President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping held their historic first face-to-face meeting since Mr. Biden took office, provided an atmosphere for various leaders to work together, Mr. Yeo said.

He added: “This is a role Asean can play. Not by interjecting, saying ‘we’re right, you’re wrong and that’s how the world should be’. But only by kindness, showing respect, nodding, acknowledging.

“In that way, by providing a way to break down divisions, it can make the region more welcoming and hopefully the world a better place.”

Mr Yeo also answered questions from more than 300 academics, diplomats and business leaders who attended the event on Tuesday.

Responding to an audience member who asked how domestic politics can affect regional politics, Mr Yeo touched on the situation in Myanmar and said the situation there needed to be resolved before it worsened further.

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