SINGAPORE | The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) might one day overtake the European Union as an economic power, Singapore's foreign minister says.
"Our trajectory is upwards, their trajectory is probably flat for a considerable period of time, and even after that, their growth is unlikely to be very strong," Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam said. "Over a very long period of time, we may well overtake them.
"But I wouldn't hold my breath about that in the medium term. And that can only happen if there is peace and there is harmony and there are no serious tensions - and that's a very big 'if.'"
Singapore - along with Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines - was one of ASEAN's founding members in 1967.
The body has since welcomed Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Brunei into its ranks.
Though ASEAN member countries together have about 600 million people - nearly 100 million more than the 27-nation EU - they are still well behind economically, with a total gross domestic product of $3.1 trillion compared to the EU's $15.8 trillion.
But trend lines are in their favor. Last year, as several E.U. economies fell into recession, the ASEAN economy grew 4.5 percent - a rate expected to reach roughly 6 percent in 2012.
As its economic clout has surged, ASEAN has sought a growing role in global affairs, most recently in Myanmar, where the ruling military junta has initiated democratic reforms. In April, longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won 40 of 45 seats in the country's landmark by-elections.
Mr. Shanmugam echoed the ASEAN position that the U.S. should lift all financial restrictions on Myanmar immediately, saying that "sanctions are not very productive" and that it was "better to engage Myanmar."
The democratic opening, he argued, is "for real, but real doesn't mean irreversible."
"I think the president [of Myanmar] is serious," he said. "The by-election results show that. The series of steps he has taken show that.
"If in October anyone had said that all these steps would have been taken between November and May of this year, most people would've said it's unlikely, so I think Myanmar is on its way toward reforming."
Mr. Shanmugam cautioned the international community to maintain realistic expectations for progress, saying that "you can't go from a very low base to something fantastic in a short period of time."
"There will be lots of hurdles along the way, and it's for us not to criticize at every hurdle but to try and help," he said, pointing to Singapore's own role assisting Myanmar with capacity-building and governance.
ASEAN also has been active in the escalating crisis over the South China Sea, where China - which has island territorial disputes with some ASEAN members - has assumed an increasingly aggressive naval posture.
Earlier this month, at Singapore's annual Asian Security Summit, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta pledged that 60 percent of U.S. warships would be stationed in the Pacific by 2020.
Mr. Shamnugam said that ASEAN countries welcomed the increased U.S. presence, but he called for it to be part of a broader strategy that convinces average Americans of their interests in the region.
"Engagement cannot simply be militaristic," he said. "It has to be economic as well. Americans have to see that they are making money and they are involved and their companies are here."
While Mr. Shanmugam said that U.S. engagement is necessary to ensure that the region does not become "China's backyard," he argued that "we cannot get into a Cold War mentality."
"It cannot be China vs. the U.S.," he said. "ASEAN, Singapore cannot be asked to take sides because if you're asked to take sides and you're small countries in this region, we just won't do it. So American policy cannot be based on ‘Well, you're either with or you're against us.'"
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