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NEWS UPDATES Asean Affairs    16 August  2012

Asean business leaders urged to drop political disputes


Asean business leaders should press ahead in bolstering regional strengths and be undeterred by political conflicts that involve countries in the region and superpowers like the US and China, a former foreign affairs and trade and industry minister of Singapore said.

In a speech to the Asean Business Club on Tuesday evening, George Yeo, now vice chairman of Kerry Group, stressed that the business community should strengthen efforts to ensure the successful materialisation of the Asean Economic Community (AEC), which would make Asean stronger and ensure a bigger role for the region in the new world economy.

"If we play our role, we can make a better Asia and then a better world," he said. "Don't react to reactions, but to strategies. In the meantime, let us stimulate movement."

Much of his speech, titled "Asean in the New World Economy", highlighted that all existing conflicts were solvable. If not now, they can be resolved tomorrow, he said.

Yeo started his talk by referring to disputes in the South China Sea, which involve China, the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as recent tension over the United States' plan to establish a regional radar system. In the past, he said, Thailand also faced threats from Vietnam when that country had sought dominance in Indochina.

He stressed that Asean leaders should not let "vested interests affect mutual benefits".

The situation was "frantic" in the past, he said, but it had improved over time. He acknowledged that Asean had been formulated out of member states' mutual fear of one another, and not the need for one another. But over time, Asean has come to offer opportunities to all citizens of the 10-member grouping, and integration also raises bargaining power when Asean nations have to deal with superpowers.

"We have differences, but if we don't cling together, we can't negotiate with China, Japan and the US," he said.

Yeo said he did not believe it was in China's interest to bully Asean, given the country's genuine interest in forging a trade pact with the grouping shortly after the 1997 financial crisis.

In doing so, Beijing also understood that Asean, in embracing "friends", could offer similar deals to other nations such as the US, Japan and China to create a "comfortable situation for all". It is also not in the United States' interest to divide Asean, as that would pave the way for China's dominance of the region, country by country, he said.

Regional integration now offers connectivity to the world, offering new trade channels and the integration of regional skills. Through China, Asean can establish North-South linkage, while Japan and India will help in East-West linkage, he added.

Opening the Asean Business Club's gala dinner, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Kittiratt Na-Ranong cited trust as the success factor in strengthening regional bonds to another level, namely the AEC.

After a two-hour meeting with top business leaders, he said: "We can offer reassurance that Thailand will be trusted by friends. Before, we focused on competition, to outperform one another. Now, we have to work together, for the AEC."

The Asean Business Club was launched last October as a networking forum for regional business leaders.

The club's Thailand co-chairmen are Tos Chirativat, chief executive officer of Central Retail Corp, and Chartsiri Sophonpanich, president of Bangkok Bank.

Tuesday's event followed the first such dinner, which was hosted in Kuala Lumpur. Another will be held in Jakarta at the end of next month.

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