ASEAN must be 'neutral broker' of power plays: Pitsuwan | Connect Asia

ASEAN must be 'neutral broker' of power plays: Pitsuwan

ASEAN must be 'neutral broker' of power plays: Pitsuwan

Updated 26 November 2012, 16:13 AEST

Thailand's Surin Pitsuwan will soon step down as secretary-general of the Association of South East Asian Nations after five years in the job.

Jim Middleton spoke to Mr Pitsuwan on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh recently, and asked him if could single out the most important highlight during his term in office.

Presenter: Jim Middleton

Speaker: Surin Pitsuwan, outgoing ASEAN secretary-general

DR SURIN PITSUWAN: When I came into the office in early 2008, I'd been saying I've been baptised. I had been baptised by the cyclone in Myanmar, do you remember that?

JIM MIDDLETON: I do.

DR SURIN PITSUWAN: 140,000 lives perished right away. We had to go in to help 4 million more, just teetering between life and death. Then we went - we brought the world in. We brought the UN in. Myanmar then was a different category, different kind of country.

JIM MIDDLETON: And do you think that what happened then has in part contributed ...

DR SURIN PITSUWAN: That's the point.

JIM MIDDLETON: ...to the opening up of Burma today?

DR SURIN PITSUWAN: That's the point.

One of the most gratifying experiences has to be the opening up of Myanmar. Which I think ASEAN has contributed to by engaging them, bringing the world in, and raising the level of comfort of the leadership of Myanmar, the people of Myanmar, that the world is, after all, not very, very hostile.

JIM MIDDLETON: Let's talk about the events of the week.

DR SURIN PITSUWAN: Yes.

JIM MIDDLETON: As ASEAN has become more significant, more influential, attracted other nations into its forums, one of the side-effects of that is that the stakes get higher.

DR SURIN PITSUWAN: Yes.

JIM MIDDLETON: Do the nations of ASEAN feel a bit buffeted, perhaps even bullied by the big powers that now sit around the table, particularly the United States and China?

DR SURIN PITSUWAN: I think what we realise is we have to be a neutral broker of all these power plays, if I may use that term, between and among external powers around us.

We can't do it alone. To achieve our own objective, our own vision of one community here among us 10, we need to involve a lot of them. And then we found ourselves being in the middle of the growth region of the world. Your Prime Minister, Mrs Gillard, calls us the engine room of global recovery.

So being that centre of this gravity, we must know that there will be a lot of other external powers would want to converge on our forum, on our stage. There is no other Asia-wide or region-wide legitimately recognised as the ASEAN Forum or the ASEAN stage or ASEAN process.

JIM MIDDLETON: Let's talk about the South China Sea for a moment. A very difficult issue for ASEAN, very different interests among not only its own members but among its dialogue partners as well.

DR SURIN PITSUWAN: Yes.

JIM MIDDLETON: What does it say, though, about the effectiveness of the organisation that you should end this series of meetings with such division on the issue?

DR SURIN PITSUWAN: We are still growing together. We are still trying to integrate not only economically but in norms, in perceptions, in vision, and in the way in which we handle our differences.

I think what the chair here was trying to say is that on this issue, at this particular meeting, let us try to contain the spill-over effect.

JIM MIDDLETON: But you are no closer to dealing with this issue, which is so important....

DR SURIN PITSUWAN: It is important.

JIM MIDDLETON: ...for global trade, not just Asian trade...

DR SURIN PITSUWAN: It is important.

JIM MIDDLETON: ...than you were a year ago.

DR SURIN PITSUWAN: It is important and it is challenging, but I would say we have come a long way from July this year. Because July this year we could not issue a communique at all on this issue because of this issue.

Now the way in which the issue was brought up was very civil, was very courteous to each other. We have our interests in the stability and security of this particular body of waters. That's pretty much the tone.

JIM MIDDLETON: Before I leave this issue, do you think that it is possible to manage this via bilateral negotiations where the trade off for China for that is agreement on a regional development zone? And also would China then be prepared to agree to some US involvement in maritime security?

DR SURIN PITSUWAN: We only have to wait for the new leadership in Beijing, how flexible they want to be, they can be, and then whether that point of decision is going to be made is going to arrive in the next year or two.

That point of agreeing for what we would call a joint development area; which is something that Thailand and Malaysia have been doing for the past 10 years exploring the resources in the body of waters that we could not agree how to demarcate. Leave that for the future. But along the way let us benefit from the resources.

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