ASEAN’s chief looks to consolidate as grouping turns 45

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) celebrates its 45th anniversary on Aug. 8, and ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan took time to speak with The Jakarta Post’s Yohanna Ririhena and intern Chin Panhavion on the association’s accomplishments to date and the challenges it faces in the future.

Question: How do you describe ASEAN at 45?

Anwer: ASEAN has accomplished a great deal, but it is expected to do more. If it was a human being, it would be in the prime of its life. I think ASEAN has been able to evolve incrementally to attract a lot of confidence from the international community. We have been trying to integrate within and among ourselves — and we are doing quite well — but we should go on our own.

There has been a lot of interest and attention focused on East Asia or ASEAN lately, which we have to handle. For some issues, the pressure is a bit high. We need to adjust how to handle it. If we want to maintain centrality in Asia, then we have to consolidate.

Question:How have the dreams of ASEAN’s founders been realized?

Answer:Far beyond their articulated dreams. ASEAN came at a moment when many regional architectures and regional arrangements failed. It has fulfilled its expansion [to 10 members nations] and become a
region of peace and stability.

ASEAN came about with modest expectations to create a forum and to focus on economic and cultural cooperation. Later, we evolved into a community. ASEAN has contributed to common prosperity. However, there are still a lot of gaps to be addressed.

Question:How can ASEAN help the peoples of its member nations?

We must develop an ASEAN perspective on every issue. We should not come in with separate individual interests, but try to evolve an ASEAN perspective with an ASEAN character on every issue that we pursue.

A common position is the minimum. A solid understanding of the issues [is needed] and [we must] present a unified front, rather than a disparate [one].

That’s a bit abstract — and easier said than done — but it is the only way forward. It needs a central mechanism that is more effective, stronger and enhanced in its capacity.

Question: What is ASEAN’s most pressing challenge?

Answer:To consolidate itself to handle the stresses, the strains and the pressures that are piling up.

We are now a victim of our own success, such that many people want to be in the forum, on this stage. We need to find an effective mechanism to handle the pressure and the heat.

We could provide an effective ambiance for discussing issues for the entire East Asia region. We have to manage emerging rivalries, especially when the issue comes closer to home, between major dialogue partners.

We could provide a forum when an external power is having an issue with us or with some of us. We may find it a bit difficult to handle, but we will get through this.

I am sure that everyone wishes that we succeed. Our success is in their interest, too, to play a balancing act between mechanism and centrality.

Question: What should ASEAN do to manage the power rivalries in its own backyard?

Answer: ASEAN should be very consolidated, very united and creative. Among themselves, ASEAN [member nations] must be very accommodative with each other and must present a common front and a united front on every issue.

Last year, Indonesia talked about a common position 10 years from now, in 2022. Now, the situation is calling for an even earlier consolidation of a common position on issues within the community and the external community.

What lesson did ASEAN learn from Phnom Penh, when ministers failed to agree to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in the association’s history?

If we are not fully united and integrated, we can become the victim of external powers. The pressure here is not that someone is trying to push us, but pressure of issues and differences.

This [incident] will not be the last time. It will happen again. A wave can become tsunami, one after another, coming to our shore.

These are the pressures. Everybody is converging on the landscape and on the stage of ASEAN. Naturally, you feel the heat, you hear the noise, you hear the differences being aired.

ASEAN has to consolidate more and has to work much harder in order to present a common front on every issue.

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