ASEAN ‘welcomes’ renewed US interest, says Surin
Volume 31, No. 615
February 20 - 26, 2012
NOW that Cambodia has assumed the chairmanship of ASEAN, the regional organisation’s secretary-general Dr Surin Pitsuwan looks ahead to the role Cambodia must play and to its agenda for the coming year. It promises to be an eventful one with the possibility of US President Barack Obama attending the group’s final summit in November, as well as the concurrent East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, when Dr Surin will hand over the reins to his successor, Vietnam’s Le Luong Minh. As he starts his final year, Dr Surin casts an eye back over the highlights of his term as helmsman of the regional body.
How will Cambodia fare as chairman of ASEAN this year?
They have done it successfully once before in 2002. And today, the leaders and government of Cambodia seem very committed and willing and ready to make it work once again. Of course, things have changed profoundly since then and there are now more demands, more expectations and more challenges for the member who takes the chair. Cambodia is a smaller nation and has less connectivity and so on than bigger, more developed members like Indonesia, the previous chairman. But all ASEAN countries know that there is a collective ownership of the process and that everyone pulls together. Cambodia certainly has a lot of goodwill as a country that in the last couple of decades has had to come up from a ground zero situation – and has done so surprisingly well.
ASEAN members seem to pull together and be more harmonious today than they were when you became secretary-general.
Well, the general context of the world has changed. So the agenda for this region has become: Let’s put our eggs together in order to compete with the world. Let’s see how we can maximise our assets as our region becomes a new growth centre. So all 10 members of ASEAN are thinking together, more carefully and deliberatively, about the direction of the region than they were before. It’s a firmer ground, a firmer collective platform, which is far better than striking out on your own. Even Indonesia, the largest member, still considers ASEAN as a framework for its own engagement with the world. So I think you’re right, the mood has improved and any disharmony over lingering bilateral issues has been dampened. And the increased collective har mony is good for Cambodia as it takes the chair this year.
Is ASEAN supporting Cambodia’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council?
Yes, in principle, all ASEAN countries support each other and my hope is that Cambodia will get it. I’ve certainly been doing my bit to help. I believe it would be a recognition of the achievement of the people of Cambodia rising from the ashes of the Khmer Rouge era. Thus far, they have made it. They have integrated themselves into the international community and reconciled internally among themselves. That is some achievement. So I certainly do hope they’ll get it.
How do you feel about America’s renewed focus on this region?
Nature abhors vacuum. So everyone wants to contribute to make sure there is no destabilising vacuum around here. Because when you look at the region, you see that it has become more important to the global community than before. Everyone, including the United States, appreciates that and benefits from the region’s stability and security. We want to maintain that situation and avoid any miscalculation or accident that could disrupt us and affect everyone. So we certainly welcome the new US engagement in this region.
It’s not a move by the US to contain China?
I think less so than the fact that the world would like to be reassured that this region is going to remain stable, peaceful and prosperous. I think the American attitude is that with less commitment and less involvement in the Middle East, they must look to where there are potential areas of instability that could affect the global economic recovery. When they look around for where best to go for global trade and investment to help them out of their own economic crisis, it’s got to be East Asia. It’s ASEAN. So their new pivot towards us is understandable. But what we don’t want is anyone coming in and bringing tension or confrontation. Everybody, including the US, is welcome on the basis of openness and fairness. To ensure that happens, ASEAN must learn to be a balancing mechanism, a fulcrum, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, of regional cooperation.
What keeps you awake at night about the region?
I want ASEAN integration to go faster. The regional agenda should be viewed as more of an inspiration rather than as something that leads to confrontation. There should be more concession to the regional structure than happens today. So I’m worried about how much member states contribute to the regional agenda and how much they want to keep to themselves. That is what holds us back.
What has been your most fulfilling achievement as secretary-general?
There has not been a single boring day since I started in this job. But I’m looking forward to completing my term this year. During the time I’ve been here, ASEAN has become more respected and more recognised as a regional mechanism of cooperation. We now have 63 ambassadors accredited to ASEAN. As well, the unfolding of Myanmar has been no small achievement. Our full engagement since Cyclone Nargis, which coincided with my first year in the job, is very significant. I hope to leave the post with Myanmar being fully accepted into the regional and international community.