JAKARTA - The new secretary-general of Asean began his term yesterday by saying the group needs to accelerate negotiations with China on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.
Mr Le Luong Minh also hopes to bridge differences within the 10-nation bloc so that Asean can reach its goal of becoming an integrated community by 2015.
The 61-year-old former deputy foreign minister of Vietnam is taking over at a time of heightened tensions over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Yesterday, the Philippines' Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario asked China to explain its deployment of a patrol ship to guard disputed territory it claims in the South China Sea.
Mr del Rosario said Chinese diplomats have previously said that Beijing will only assert its claims, including by possibly intercepting foreign ships, in waters off its province of Hainan. But China also claims that most of the South China Sea falls under Hainan's jurisdiction, he said.
The Philippines has asked China to specify the limits of the territory it will guard, he said. "Everybody's hot and bothered," Mr del Rosario said. "That's why we're saying, define, please define for us, but they're not answering."
Tensions over the South China Sea ran high during a meeting of Asean foreign ministers in July last year, when the 10-member bloc failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in its 45-year history. Critics fear such national interests could drown out Asean's collective voice.
The failure also raised concerns that increasingly assertive big powers like China could drive a wedge in the group's unity. Four Asean nations - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - as well as China and Taiwan claim territories in the South China Sea.
Mr Minh, a seasoned diplomat for 38 years, says more must be done to shape standards, norms of conduct, build confidence and put in place measures to prevent conflicts and resolve them.
"Asean should speed up efforts towards an early start of negotiations with China, with a view to achieving an early conclusion on a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea," he said in his speech at the handover at the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta.
Also speaking at the ceremony were his predecessor, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, and Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa. All touched on the importance of peace and stability in the region.
Mr Minh is the first chief Asean diplomat from one of the four newer members that joined in the 1990s. He faces a daunting deadline of bringing about an Asean Economic Community by 2015.
"The more open flow of investments, capital, labour, goods and services will pose different challenges and opportunities for member states," he said.
Integration won't be complete without narrowing the development gap within Asean, he added.
"Providing our young people with good education is one of the most effective ways out of the poverty trap," he said.
Dr Surin said that as Asean becomes the centre of global growth in the next decade, prosperity will bring in more players.
"We cannot kick anybody out," he said. "We can only manage their interactions among ourselves so we can benefit and we can help to sustain the strategic bonds that we would like to see here in the region."
Dr Marty said that Indonesia, as South-east Asia's largest country, wants to continue to play an active role in managing this.
"Asean must continue to be at the forefront of a regional architecture that promotes Asia-Pacific peace and stability," he said.