Surin: ASEAN Can Play Leadership Role in Asia

ASEAN Secretary-General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan

HONG KONG (April 26, 2010) -- For ASEAN Secretary-General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, a major revelation about the new reality of Asia's global role and "shift of weight from West to East" came in October 2008, when Western and Asian leaders met in China's Great Hall of the People during the Asia-Europe Meeting in Beijing.

Speaking at an international media conference in Hong Kong, Dr. Surin said that during the meeting, which took place as the international economic crisis was really beginning to take hold, the leaders of the great powers of Europe all appealed to Asia, and China especially, to "please help us, please pull us out of this crisis."

"And Asia has not disappointed," Surin said in a keynote speech at the media conference on "Reporting New Realities in Asia and the Pacific," sponsored by the East-West Center of Honolulu, Hawaii, and The University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Centre. "Asia has been able to pull itself out of the crisis faster than the rest of the world," he said.

Surin made the case that the ASEAN group of 10 Southeast Asian Nations and its partnerships with other Asia Pacific powers, including China, Japan and Korea, can play a leading role in multilateral engagement throughout the region.

"In order to help East Asia grow, ASEAN is providing leadership, because we are a threat to none, and a friend to all," he said.

As an example, he pointed to the Chiang Mai Initiative, a currency-exchange agreement enacted this year between ASEAN's member nations, along with China, Japan and Korea. The agreement is designed to protect against short-term liquidity problems through a US $120 billion foreign exchange reserve pool.

During the negotiation of the agreement, Surin said, China and Japan vied with each other over who should be allowed to contribute more to the reserve pool.

"I think that's a problem anyone would like to have," he said.

Surin said that one new reality in Asia is that the U.S. has shown renewed enthusiasm for engaging in the region, as evidenced by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton choosing Asia as the destination of her first overseas trip as America's top diplomat, and President Obama's meeting with ASEAN leaders in Singapore last November.

American engagement in the region is welcome, Surin said, "but the U.S. must also realize that the terrain has changed."

Surin predicted that the "geopolitical rivalry" between China and the U.S. would play out largely in Southeast Asia, because the region "sits between the giants, China and India, and 85 percent of Asia's energy comes either from or through Southeast Asia."

But the ASEAN nations would be able to deal with such friction, he said, "because we have experience with major superpower rivalries in the region, and we have developed ways to handle them."

Speaking to the audience of journalists and media experts from some 30 countries, Surin quoted the American playwright Arthur Miller that a good newspaper "is a nation talking to itself."

The former academic and longtime politician from Thailand, who became ASEAN's Secretary-General at the beginning of 2008, said he would like to see more of "an informed corps of reporters" working in Asia "because the world would like to know. And please make sure East Asia talks to itself - through your research, your reporting, and your analysis."

Asked about criticisms that ASEAN has been hesitant to get involved in thorny member-country issues such as border disputes between Thailand and Cambodia and political repression in Burma, Surin noted that ASEAN's charter, like the UN's, contains a non-interference principle.

And he pointed to recent ASEAN moves on such issues, including the organization's work to establish an intergovernmental human rights commission in the region.

 "I know that there has been a lot of expectation on ASEAN, but it can only deliver so much," he said. "At least it has been maintaining relative peace and growth for the region."

"If ASEAN succeeds in its vision and mission, at least the world will have one less region to worry about," Surin said. "I think that is the contribution of ASEAN -- the region can take care of itself."

This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center