JAKARTA — The new secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has called for progress on a code of conduct for the South China Sea. The ASEAN leader also recognized the ongoing political and economic challenges the region faces as it moves toward greater integration.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations welcomed its new secretary general Le Luong Minh on Wednesday, at a time when the regional grouping faces some of the biggest challenges in its 46-year history.
Those include a slowing global economy, a rise in natural disasters and security threats that could jeopardize regional peace and stability. A key challenge will be finding a solution to territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Several ASEAN members claim sovereignty over those waters, but so too does regional giant, China.
Tensions there plagued last year’s annual ASEAN gathering in Cambodia, with leaders failing to produce an agreement governing actions in the disputed waters. The impasse seemed to highlight divisions between the group’s 10 member states and raised concerns that it lacked cohesion.
During his speech on Wednesday, Minh touched specifically on the need for a solution.
“In the face of complicated developments on the South China Sea, ASEAN should speed up efforts toward an early start of negotiations with China with a view to achieving an early conclusion toward of code of conduct on the South China Sea,” Minh stated.
Call for dialogue
Minh is the past deputy foreign minister for Vietnam, one of the four ASEAN countries that claims sovereignty over a part of the area. The Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also say they have rights to the waters, which hold abundant fisheries, provide vital trade routes and are said to be rich in oil and natural gas.
Analysts say Minh will need to maintain his neutrality given his country of origin.
Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, Marty Natalagawa, also spoke about the need for neutrality and cohesion as key to regional security.
“We must continue to be at the forefront of a regional architecture that promotes the Asia-Pacific’s peace and stability, a region that eschews violence and conflict. That instead promotes peaceful settlement of disputes, of partnership and of a perspective which recognizes that peace and security are actually common essentials to be shared and to be nurtured in the interests of all,” he said.
Minh takes the helm of ASEAN from Surin Pitsuwan, a Thai national who saw the grouping through a border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia, a regime change in Burma and devastating natural disasters throughout the region.
In addition to building peace and security within ASEAN, Minh said another priority would be to ensure all member states are prepared for the ASEAN Economic Community set to begin in 2015.
The economic community aims for greater integration within ASEAN through liberalized trade and investment, much like the European Union. But there are concerns that many of ASEAN’s less developed members will not be ready to handle the free movement of goods, services and labor.
Minh noted those concerns, but also explained the benefits. “The more open flow of investments, capital, labor, goods and services will pose different challenges and opportunities for our member states. But it will also have a tremendous multiplier effect on the region,” he explained.
Minh said narrowing the economic gap between ASEAN’s different members would be key to equitable development across the region.
ASEAN has grown in size and economic importance in recent years, but some analysts continue to debate its ability to hold together. For now it remains a disparate grouping with economies that range from developed to developing and political systems that include communist Vietnam, socialist Laos, constitutional monarchies in Thailand and Cambodia and newly democratic Burma.
Over the past year Indonesia has led the way on a series of important bilateral issues, with Indonesian Foreign Minister Natalagawa serving as a key mediator on South China Sea disputes. On Wednesday he offered Minh a piece of advice.
“The ASEAN community as a sentiment, as an emotion cannot be legislated, it cannot be enacted through the adoption and implementation of formal agreements," said Natalagawa. "These sentiments must be nurtured, it must be cultivated it must be practiced.”
Minh is the first Vietnamese representative to hold the post of secretary general of ASEAN. The five-year position rotates among the 10 member states based on alphabetical order. Next it will go to Brunei.