THOUGH negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are not progressing as hoped, it still remains a feasible alternative towards an eventual free-trade area of Asia-Pacific, said Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Speaking on Wednesday morning at the 29th Asean Summit, Mr Lee highlighted trade, terrorism and unity issues that Asean must tackle.
He told the leaders present at the closed-door retreat that though pace of negotiations for the RCEP have slowed, all members should still engage their domestic stakeholders on the benefits of this arrangement.
"Rather than setting a low bar, we should be flexible and pragmatic to secure a good quality agreement expeditiously, so that we can expand opportunities for our businesses and create a new viable pathway towards an eventual free-trade area of Asia-Pacific alongside the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership)," said Mr Lee in comments released to the media after the retreat by Singaporean officials.
Sixteen countries in the Asia-Pacific have commited themselves to the RCEP. Originally slated to be completed by this year, negotiations are expected to extend till next year.
When ratified, the RCEP will be the world's largest free-trade agreement, but wil lack the depth of the TPP.
Mr Lee's comments come as United States President Barack Obama visits Laos to engage Asean leaders in his last major tour of the region to cement his legacy in drawing the US closer to Asia. Mr Obama will be stepping down in January after a new US president is elected in Novemeber.
A big part of Obama's US pivot to Asia involves the TPP, which seeks to break new ground in removing trade barriers among 12 Asia-Pacific nations.
Notably, the TPP excludes China. Mr Obama has fashioned the agreement as crucial to US' relevance in the region, as China cannot "set the rules".
However, the TPP faces considerable opposition from Washington lawmakers. US presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have also voiced opposition to it.
At Wednesday's retreat, Mr Lee also touched on terrorism and the importance of unity among Asean members.
Stating that leaders are now seeing more instances of self-radicalisation, terrorist groups linking up with each other, and increased frequency of attacks, Mr Lee urged Asean to "work more closely together, share intelligence, share our analysis of threats, counter extremist doctrines and exchange views, and take concerted actions against terrorist groups."
Asean unity is necessary for the grouping, said Mr Lee. Citing tensions in the South China Sea as an example, he said that they have become "a barometer of Asean's unity and credibility."
"We need to speak with one voice so that we can carry greater weight in world affairs," he said.