JAKARTA—Despite recent squabbles among its members over what do about competing claims in the South China Sea, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has seen its global profile skyrocket in recent years, said the head of the association.
Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said the 10-member economic bloc—which for decades was seen as little more than a big photo opportunity full of grand dinners and bland declarations—is starting to shine as economic growth in Southeast Asia outpaces much of the rest of the world. Further, both the U.S. and China have declared the growing importance of the countries and waterways of this corner of the world.
Mr. Pitsuwan has headed up Asean during a pivotal five-year period in which the association has taken a more proactive role in pushing for better relations and tighter economic integration among its members. His term as secretary-general will end this year
“I have seen the rising expectations from the outside and growing confidence from the inside,” he told The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. “Asean has done well, but Asean has to do a lot more.”
To reflect its growing global profile, Asean headquarters in Jakarta has attracted ambassadors from 67 countries in recent years. Its previously low-profile events are now attended by the leaders of the U.S., China, India and Japan and other powerful nations.
In the last two years, Asean has been involved in easing tensions in the deadly border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia and it has helped push the military-backed government of Myanmar to reform.
“It was the Asean approach to give Myanmar time and space,” rather than threaten it with sanctions to change, said Mr. Pitsuwan. “Now our approach has been validated.”
Meanwhile Asean has been at the center of the debate about which countries have rights to which parts of the South China Sea. China as well as Asean members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and others have overlapping claims on the resource-rich waters.
Tensions over the South China Sea erupted during an Asean Summit earlier this month as several Asean members accused host Cambodia—a Beijing ally—of misrepresenting their views on how to handle the dispute. The problem first popped up in July, when Asean foreign ministers ended a meeting without issuing a joint communiqué for the first time in the group’s history.
Cambodia had blocked the statement, which was to mention the problems in the South China Sea on China’s behalf, diplomats and analysts said at the time. China prefers to deal with the South China Sea dispute one country at a time, whereas the U.S. and others have called for a multilateral approach.
Asean needs to work together, said Mr. Pitsuwan, so it cannot be manipulated by outside powers.
“We are now expected to balance contending powers,” he said. “We don’t want to choose sides and the only way to do that is to build ourselves into a strong viable community.”
After stepping down to make way for Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Le Luong Minh next year, Mr. Pitsuwan plans to become a jet-set professor, teaching courses on Asean in universities in his native Thailand, Japan and the U.S. He said he plans to become one of the association’s biggest outside cheerleaders and critics.
In the next two years, Southeast Asian countries will have to do a lot more to make a planned Asean Economic Community in 2015 a reality, he said.
While much of the plans and regulations are in place to open up the region for a free flow of capital, goods and people, the diverse member states of Asean aren’t always doing what needs to be done on the ground to open their markets.
Thanks partly to the barriers, only some 25% of the region’s trade is between Asean members. That figure could be much higher if all the barriers were lowered as planned, said Mr. Pitsuwan.
“Non-tariff barriers have been popping up and it will have an impact on our future,” he said.
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