Challenges for Viet envoy as new secretary-general

VETERAN Vietnamese diplomat Le Luong Minh succeeded Dr Surin Pitsuwan yesterday as secretary-general of Asean. His five-year term ends in 2018.

Mr Minh takes over at the most pivotal time in Asean's 45-year history - when the 10 member-states urgently need to build deeper and sustainable common ground to countervail external challenges and pressures from both current and emerging superpowers.

By all accounts, Mr Minh has been well prepared and meticulously groomed for years by the Vietnamese government to take the helm. As the first Asean chief coming from a new member - a former key adversary - his leadership style and advocacy will be closely watched.

For the next five years, whatever he does and says will have an impact on Asean integration and identity. In a similar vein, it will also shape the regional grouping's character and image as perceived by the outside world.

Mr Minh was Hanoi's permanent representative to the United Nations. When Vietnam won a seat in the UN Security Council for the first time in 2008-2009, he also served as the council's rotational president.

During its presidency, Vietnam conducted itself well and, in certain cases, walked a tightrope over key global conflicts, especially on situations in Darfur/Sudan, the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Georgia and Somalia, among others.

His proudest moment was the effort to organise a conference for relief and reconstruction to help rehabilitate Myanmar and the victims of Cyclone Nargis in the aftermath of the May 2008 disaster.

Preparing for his job

IN FACT, Hanoi's experience was so good at the UN Security Council that it is seeking to return to it in 2019-2020. No Asean country has ever attempted to do so within such a short time.

With the country's leading diplomat heading Asean, Vietnam's profile in regional and global politics will be further enhanced and recognised. Vietnamese diplomats do not take these initiatives lightly as they have been trained for consistency and perseverance.

Long before the official announcement of his nomination, recently endorsed at the 21st Asean Summit in November last year, Mr Minh was attending key Asean meetings to prepare for his new role. He made his first appearance in Phnom Penh at the 20th summit in April last year and was introduced informally to Asean leaders, nearly nine months before Dr Surin's term expired.

Since then, he has attended several Asean meetings, including the annual ministerial meeting in July last year, to acquaint himself with the issues at hand. His focus was on sessions discussing the South China Sea disputes, the East Asia Summit's foreign ministerial meeting and the Asean Regional Forum.

In the past months, he has visited the Asean Secretariat and exchanged views with Dr Surin and had meetings with other former secretaries-general. He has also paid courtesy calls on senior officials in various Asean capitals.

Challenges await him

DURING his stop in Bangkok, Mr Minh said he would accelerate the implementation of the three pillars of the Asean Community - political/security, economic and social/cultural - as well as promote negotiations on a code of conduct for the South China Sea.

With his new position, numerous challenges await him from within and outside the organisation. At the secretariat, he needs to further consolidate its various organs to improve their efficiency. This was one of the big headaches his predecessor had to deal with.

Asean has several councils with overlapping objectives. Each organ knows exactly its responsibilities but somehow when they cross over to other areas, confusion reigns as they lack the whole organisation's perspective. That helps explain why certain decisions in Asean have not been followed up.

Under Mr Minh, the pending reviews of the Asean Charter and the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights will serve as a barometer of his leadership skills. The charter is up for review at the end of five years. This is still a sensitive issue within Asean.

Dr Surin was the first Asean chief to implement the charter and he encountered many obstacles even though he knew the strength and limits of the charter.

As the next Asean chair, Brunei can initiate debates related to the charter review if needed. At this juncture, there is no consensus on whether the charter and specific terms of reference must be reviewed in lieu of its implementation.

Sensitive issues a test

SO FAR, Asean members are divided. A number think there is no need for reviews. Others think that reviews are necessary to strengthen Asean centrality as well as making its secretariat stronger and more efficient.

At the November 2011 Asean Summit in Bali, Dr Surin submitted 17 recommendations to promote the role of the secretariat to carry out its task of facilitating Asean's integration as well as other schemes. His proposal was discussed by senior officials and the Committee of Permanent Representatives after initial delays. But a final decision has not yet been made.

It remains to be seen whether Mr Minh will vigorously pursue his predecessor's ambition. In more ways than one, it will also indicate what kind of Asean Secretariat the new secretary-general envisages. Once he is based in Jakarta, where the secretariat is located, Mr Minh will encounter similar sensitive issues, typically of a bilateral nature.

During the height of the Thai-Cambodian border conflict, Dr Surin, a Thai national, maintained his impartiality. His comments were carefully structured as he sought to remain non-partisan in the intra-Asean conflict.

Since the South China Sea dispute is not going away soon, whatever Mr Minh says or does will be closely scrutinised since his country is one of the four Asean claimants. Mr Minh will expect to use his experience in multilateral diplomacy to ensure that dialogue and non-violent means continue to be used in handling the conflicts and disputes in the region.

Observers are watching

FINALLY, the incoming chief can take advantage of the vast networking links with foreign governments and organisations, as well as civil society groups, that Dr Surin has built up.

Royalty, prime ministers and international dignitaries, including United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, have flocked to visit the Asean headquarters.

Dr Surin had also made extra efforts to reach out to the grassroots which intensified the consultation between the secretariat and Asean-based civil society organisations (CSOs) in the past years. His last encounter before the November summit zeroed in on key action plans of the Asean Community.

Leading CSOs such as Forum Asia, Solidarity of Asian People's Advocacy and Southeast Asian Press Alliance expressed the hope that Mr Minh would maintain similar consultations.

The new secretary-general will certainly adopt a different approach and likely will not take as high a profile as his predecessor.

But given his background as a good administrator, he will be hands-on with the operations involving nearly 300 local and international staff members. Since most of the top-ranked recruited officials at the secretariat will be new, it is crucial for him to establish norms and working ethics for the next five years.

The Asean Secretariat must also inculcate among officials the grouping's collective spirit that they must adhere to and the interests they must protect.

The dialogue partners and the international community are closely monitoring Asean, following its failure in July last year to issue a joint communique due to disagreements over the wording describing the South China Sea conflict. They felt they were witnessing the emergence of partisanship among Asean members.

The writer is assistant group editor of Nation Media Group in Thailand, which publishes the English-language daily The Nation. By Invitation features leading thinkers and writers from the region and Singapore.