Surin Pitsuwan was selected by the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as the organization's next secretary general at their 40th annual meeting in Manila, the Philippines, in July. The former Thai foreign minister will succeed Ong Keng Yong from Singapore on January 1. During a trip to Beijing, Surin spoke to Beijing Review reporter Yan Wei about his outlook on ASEAN, a regional organization for building political, economic and cultural links among 10 Southeast Asian nations.
Beijing Review: As the ASEAN Charter is expected to be unveiled at the ASEAN Summit in Singapore in November, you will be the first secretary general to serve ASEAN under that charter. What difference will the charter make to the organization and to you as its new secretary general?
Surin Pitsuwan: The charter will give ASEAN a foundation. ASEAN is going to be called a "rule-based organization" with a rather defined mission for the region. For the past 40 years, ASEAN has been a loosely structured organization. From now on, we'll call it rule-based, meaning compliance is expected. ASEAN will be better organized, more efficient, and in a sense more relevant to the challenges in and out of the region in the age of integration and globalization. In that sense, ASEAN will be transformed.
The secretary general, I was told, is going to have a new, clearer mandate and a more defined responsibility-a spokesperson of the organization able to engage and initiate in order to present ASEAN to the world.
You have extensive work experience in both diplomacy and academia. How will your past experiences help you to determine your priorities during your five years as ASEAN's secretary general?
As a politician, I think the involvement of the people in the processes of a regional organization like ASEAN would be very important, because we want to be beneficial, useful and relevant to the lives of the entire people of ASEAN-more than 560 million. A political perspective is to engage people, to open up ASEAN and to bring ASEAN down to the people. My diplomatic experiences at the level of ministers, heads of government, will help facilitate between the top and the grassroots. There is an urgent need to bring people and the perspective of the people into the process. At the same time, the vision and policies of ASEAN leaders will have to be accepted and supported by the people.
The current secretary general has done extremely well, trying to mediate between various ASEAN mechanisms and governments and various sectors in each member country. But with the charter, with the new mandate for the secretariat and with the new responsibilities placed on the new secretary general, more will have to be done to build upon the great achievements of the dynamic leadership that current Secretary General Ong Keng Yong has already provided for the ASEAN Secretariat in the past five years.
Enhancing ASEAN's internal coherence and narrowing the development gap between member countries are high on the organization's agenda. Will you put forward any new initiatives in these respects?
Well, I'm not there yet. I do not have any specific agenda or policies. But it is an issue of highest urgency and it is very much realized by the leadership of ASEAN that the gap between the new members and the old members is extremely critical in trying to make ASEAN effective.
ASEAN needs to be consolidated and speak with one voice. The disparity in economic and human resource development has somehow restrained ASEAN from moving forward confidently in the international arena. The charter is going to provide a direction for further consolidation of ASEAN.
Our dialogue partners are willing to contribute. China is doing extremely well and is beneficial to the consolidation of ASEAN through the development of infrastructure in the Mekong River Basin countries - Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Viet Nam. The roads constructed to link ASEAN countries will lay an important foundation for ASEAN's growth and integration. So my point is all of the dialogue partners would like to see ASEAN more integrated and consolidated so that it can serve as an important regional mechanism for cooperation, security and peace.
ASEAN's role has been changing over the past 40 years. How do you define its relevance in today's world, especially in the dynamic region of Asia?
In the past, ASEAN was an informal forum for consultation within the region and with partners from outside the region. But the pressure of the various challenges coming with integration and globalization will require that ASEAN transform itself into a more dynamic organization.
A study showed that only 30 percent of ASEAN agreements had been acted upon for the past 40 years. From now on, agreements within ASEAN will have to be complied with certainly more than 30 percent, because of the new challenges.
What role should ASEAN play in broader Asian cooperation?
Definitely, Asia has become a new center of growth in the world. However, there have been historical experiences that have become restraints for us to really work together and make the potentiality of Asia a reality. ASEAN has been providing a forum for the countries to put aside historical rivalry and come together to contribute to the process of growth in the region.