Since 9 January 2013, Le Luong Minh is appointed as the new Secretary General of the ASEAN for the term of 2013-2017. Mr Le is the first Vietnamese to serve this post. He was Vietnam’s former deputy minister and is known as an experienced diplomat. Given his long tenure in the UN, (2004-2011) as Vietnam’s permanent representative, he has great deal of experience in multilateral issues. He became Acting Director-General, then Director-General for Multilateral Economic Cooperation in the Foreign Ministry (Dec 2002 – Jan 2004). This commentary would briefly summarise his maiden address and seek the challenges before the new secretary general.

ASEAN
In his inaugural speech, Mr Le Luong Minh expressed satisfaction over some of the developments in ASEAN, specifically on achievements on the political security front where there is general consensus between the ASEAN and its partners. But he also drew attention to numerous pending issues, what he calls as the blueprints of the ASEAN Political and Security Community. These are norms on conduct, confidence building measures and conflict prevention and resolution. In this regard, he stressed on building on from the ASEAN’s six-point principles on the South China Sea (SCS) and guidelines on conduct in the SCS as reflected in the agreement between the ASEAN and China on the issue. He called for early conclusion of the code of conduct on the SCS. On economic issues, he enumerated several challenges that the proposed ASEAN Economic Community would bring, in terms of free flow of investments, goods etc. He urged members to work towards minimising differences and maximise on common grounds. Besides, the Secretary General expressed importance to alleviating poverty, education and working on the ASEAN declaration on Human Rights.

The regional goal of establishing the ASEAN community will be during the term of Le Luong Minh. (The target is to set it up by 2015). Given disagreements in the regional bloc in recent times, there are doubts over proposed level of integration. Some of the ASEAN members are sceptical of the economic integration because of their less developed economic structures. Le will have to take these members on board. He has stated his goal in reducing the gap between more developed and developing members of the ASEAN.

The tenure for the new secretary general will be indeed challenging. The ASEAN is going through a phase where there are question raised on its integrity and methods. Lately, in one of its meetings, the ASEAN was unable to come up with a joint communiqué. There are concerns about the agenda of the ASEAN being determined not by ASEAN members but by extra-regional powers. The deliberations in the ASEAN meetings are coming out in public, which generally remained behind doors, thus adding to the speculations over its operational methods. Under these circumstances, the ASEAN secretariat will have to strengthen itself and maintain regional cohesion.

Le Luong Minh has recognised the challenges and “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 towards of code of conduct on the South China Sea” he stated. He thus understands the urgency to resolve the contentious issue of the SCS, which has caused turmoil in the association. In his recent comments, he has drawn members’ attention to the fact that continuation of tensions in the region will affect growth. In one of his recent interviews he hoped that ‘complicated developments in SCS should stop’, thereby allowing members to focus on economic development. He thus seems to balance between understanding the sentiments of members (over issues of territoriality) while not losing focus on the larger picture. It is unclear, where the onus on restraint lies – on concerned ASEAN members or on China or on extra-regional powers, or if it is a common appeal to all stakeholders. Alternatively, the emphasis on resolution of the SCS appears to emulate national interest of Vietnam. Mr Le’s appointment therefore may reflect priorities of his country. Some media reports suggest that Mr. Le will have to maintain his neutrality in the affairs of ASEAN.

Outgoing Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, pointed to the future where it will be daunting for the ASEAN to maintain its centrality amongst challenging and shifting power dynamics in the region. Mr Le has taken charge at a time when there is greater interest by external powers in Southeast Asia. He will have to maintain equilibrium in the organisation and ensure that the spirit of the ASEAN is not sabotaged under external influences. It would be important to observe if his experienced career can prove advantageous to the ASEAN in bringing a new perspective to the association under his purview as the Secretary General.

Amruta Karambelkar
Research Officer, SEARP, IPCS
E-mail: amruta@ipcs.org