Foreign ministers to discuss projects to make Asean more resilient

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Regional resilience and innovation, as well as Myanmar's Rohingya issue, likely on the cards at foreign ministers' retreat

Foreign ministers from all 10 Asean countries are in Singapore to discuss projects aimed at making the region more resilient and innovative.

In the three-day meet, which started yesterday, they will also exchange views on regional and international developments, said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in a statement.

The Asean Foreign Ministers' Retreat, held at the JW Marriott Hotel Singapore South Beach, is the first major meeting of Asean leaders in Singapore this year.

Singapore, which is chairing Asean this year, is keen to develop a network of smart cities across Asean and push for more economic integration in the region.

The leaders are also likely to discuss hot topics such as the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar's Rakhine state and tensions on the Korean peninsula. Other issues include counter-terrorism and negotiations between Asean and China over a code of conduct in the South China Sea, to begin next month.

The Straits Times understands that Singapore will strive to keep the meeting informal, with a round of golf on the cards.

Asean watchers said the foreign ministers' meeting traditionally lays the groundwork for the Asean summits later in the year, when all 10 heads of state meet each other.

Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap, research fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, said the retreat is a chance for the host foreign minister to explain the chair's theme for Asean and its proposed priorities for the year.

Singapore has laid out its twin goals of making Asean and the region more resilient and innovative, and it wants to improve digital connectivity among countries as well as cyber security.

S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies associate professor Alan Chong said the meeting is where the other Asean countries confirm their acceptance of Singapore's agenda during its time as Asean chair.

"Singapore has its wish list as chairman, but this can go forward only if there is a consensus," he said.

At the meeting, the host can also raise more sensitive and pressing issues for informal discussion.

One issue certain to be on the agenda is how, since last August, nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar amid a military crackdown.

Indonesia and Malaysia have been particularly critical of the violence.

Singapore will have to "delicately dance about the awkward situation of Myanmar", said Dr Chong.

"Singapore will have to manage it carefully without sounding like it is endorsing the situation."