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Asean ‘indispensable, irreplaceable’ partner: US vice-president Pence

SINGAPORE — The Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) is an “indispensable and irreplaceable strategic partner” of the United States, and is central to the superpower’s vision for the region, said US Vice-President Mike Pence. “Members of Asean should have no other view (of the grouping s relationship with the US). We recognise that our interests are intertwined and our visions are truly the same,” said Mr Pence at the Asean-US Summit at the Suntec Singapore Convention Centre on Thursday morning (Nov 15). Mr Pence represented US President Donald Trump at several high-level meetings in Singapore, which is hosting the Asean Summit and related meetings this week. Mr Trump had earlier been criticised by some quarters for his absence from the meetings, with prominent figures — including veteran Singapore diplomat Tommy Koh — calling into question his administration’s commitment to the region. Conveying Mr Trump’s regards and appreciation, Mr Pence said that the US’ commitment to the Indo-Pacific region was steadfast and enduring. “In all that we do, the US seeks collaboration, not control, and we are proud to call Asean our strategic partner,” said Mr Pence. The Indo-Pacific region refers to the maritime zone bordered by the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and includes all states within that spectrum. Asean and the US forged a strategic partnership in 2015. At the summit on Thursday, Mr Pence also announced a US-Asean partnership on smart cities, which he said will spur renewed American investment in the region’s digital infrastructure, and advance prosperity and security in South-east Asia. US and Asean leaders also adopted a statement on cyber-security co-operation to strengthen their resilience and capabilities against cyber crime and cyber attacks. On America’s vision for the Indo-Pacific, Mr Pence said this “excludes no nation”, and requires only that every country treat one another with respect, and that they respect the “sovereignty of our nations and the international rules of order”. The vice-president said the US has taken decisive action to promote the vision of an Indo-Pacific in which countries of all sizes can prosper and thrive, and where empire and aggression has no place. It will continue to work with Asean to advance this vision, with a focus on prosperity, security and shared principles. These include steps taken to encourage greater private investment in infrastructure across the region, and to pursue free, fair and reciprocal trade, added Mr Pence. The US partnership with Asean spans a variety of areas, including their campaign to put pressure on North Korea, and commitment to upholding freedom of navigation in the sea and air. US-CHINA TIES HAVE ‘PROFOUND IMPLICATIONS’ FOR Asean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who opened the summit, said frequent high-level exchanges with the US are important to Asean. They underscore the world power’s commitment to nurturing a multifaceted relationship with Asean, which is essential for the region’s continued security, prosperity and economic development. While Asean-US ties are healthy in areas such as defence, Mr Lee said their partnership must be seen in the background of the US’ relationship with China, which has profound implications for the regional grouping. The US and China are embroiled in a bitter trade war involving tit-for-tat tariffs imposed on billions of dollars worth of each other’s goods. Mr Lee expressed hope that ties between the major powers will remain stable, as Asean countries want to engage with both, and maximise the scope and advantages of their co-operation. Besides that, Mr Lee proposed that Asean and the US continue to deepen their tie-up in digital technology. Asean also continues to share the US’ concerns on issues threatening regional peace and stability, Mr Lee said. While the prime minister welcomed the positive developments in the Korean Peninsula, he acknowledged that it is a long journey, and urged all parties to continue working towards lasting peace on a denuclearised peninsula. In April, the two Koreas agreed to remove nuclear weapons from the peninsula, and work with the US and China to officially end the decades-long Korean War. Two months after, North Korea vowed to work towards “complete denuclearisation” after a historic summit with the US in Singapore. As for the South China Sea, Mr Lee said Singapore has a fundamental interest in peace, stability, and freedom of navigation and overflight in the strategic waterway. He added that Singapore looks forward to the conclusion of a code of conduct in the waterway, which has been a long-running flashpoint in the region owing to competing territorial claims by China and several South-east Asian countries. Earlier this year, China and Asean agreed on a single text as the basis for negotiations on the code of conduct. China has reiterated that it stands ready to work with Asean to conclude consultations on the code of conduct in three years. The next Asean-US Summit will be held in 2019.

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