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ASEAN Secretary-General’s First 100 Days

May 14, 2008

The first trip out is Singapore, January 8. The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies organized its annual conference, “East Asian Outlook.” Then it was meeting the ASEAN Cultures Minister in Myanmar and after that the ASEAN Tourism Minister. Then the ASEAN senior officials meeting, and then, before I could return for a fresh set of clothes in either Jakarta or Bangkok, the ASEAN Standing Committee retreat in Brunei.

The World Economic Forum in Switzerland came before I could regain my composure from all the flying and airline meals. The leaders of ASEAN, led by the current Chair, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, brought ASEAN to the world stage, high in the Swiss Alps. It was a swift operation. We swooped into the Davos Conference Center, put on our show, drove down the slippery slopes of the High Alps to Zurich, and flew off to our separate destinations. I think we left a very strong impression among the snow-bound power players of the world.

On stage, Prime Minister Lee was asked, “ASEAN is 40, and it now has a charter for the first time. With all the plans and projects that you have to build a community over there, don’t you need a strong central bureaucracy?” Prime Minister Lee answered, “Yes we have the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta and our new Secretary-General is here with us. Surin, would you like to say something?”

All eyes turned to me on the stage, just behind Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi of Malaysia, flanked by Professor Klaus Schwab, Chairman and CEO of the World Economic Forum. I almost fell off my chair. Here I was, new in the post, in the company of the summit leadership of ASEAN and was being asked to say something about ASEAN.

I couldn’t shrink from this. I had to rise to the occasion. I leaned over, grasped the microphone in front of Professor Schwab and began my first sermon to the world about the “sanctity of ASEAN.” I belted out, in a clear and confident voice, “Our ASEAN Secretariat is based in the capital of Indonesia, the largest member of the group, a small contingent of 210 able men and women, fighting fit, serving 567 million people. We want to be one market, one production base.”

I received the applause of the full house. In such an atmosphere of anxiety over wars, tensions, terrorism, and economic uncertainty, a note of confidence from a corner of the world able to manage its own affairs fairly well seemed a relief to the participants.

I flew on to London, where the ASEAN London Committee was waiting eagerly to hear for themselves what the new ASEAN Secretary-General had to report about the new ASEAN after the charter.

I spent two days in London, meeting with the committee and the British Ambassador to Thailand, Quinton Quayle, who happened to be back in his capital. We discussed how to get London to accede to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. France had done it. Russia had done it. China and Japan and Korea had done it. The UK wanted to do the same, but the issue of Myanmar just happened to be standing in the way.

London was my brief respite from airline meals. I strolled across Hyde Park, visited the National Gallery, walked the legendary Oxford Street, window-shopped on Regent Street, and had a decent Indian meal. Some of the best Indian food is in London and some of my favorite Japanese food is in New York!

From London, I went to Tokyo for a conference, “Creating the Largest Space for Free Trade in The World.” The Japanese have this idea. They want to establish the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia and empower the ASEAN Secretariat to play a more active role in community building in East Asia. They held a public forum to engage the Tokyo public intellectuals, media, diplomats, and business community in the undertaking. They invited the Prime Minister, Yasuo Fukuda, to preside over the opening ceremony and they asked the new Secretary-General of ASEAN to share his vision for the new initiative.

I seized the occasion to thank the prime minister for what Japan had done for Southeast Asia during the past 30 years”and I appealed to history. “Thirty years ago Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda the Father gave us the First Fukuda Doctrine,” I said, “and it is about time for Fukuda the Son to recalibrate the same vision and pronounce the Fukuda Doctrine II.”

I understand that current Prime Minister Fukuda is very warm to the idea and something similar to my proposal might just be in the making. Perhaps a new Fukuda Doctrine for East Asia? A new vision for Japan’s role in a new and evolving Asia?

I went to Copenhagen, flying straight from Tokyo via Paris, across the North Pole in the dark of the night, to join a small group of friends. Former Foreign Minister Jan Peterson of Denmark called a meeting of former foreign ministers of the 1990s”my badge, my classmates”to talk about major issues facing the world. Madeleine K. Albright, Igor Ivanov, Llody Axworthy of Canada, Dini of Italy, Erick of Belgium, and Joscha Fischer of Germany were all there. Robin Cooke used to be with us too. We discussed the challenges of global warming and climate change.

I returned to Bangkok for the gathering of youth leaders from the ASEAN Plus Three countries in early February and had to rush back to Jakarta for an audience with the president of the Republic of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, on February 8th. Then back to Singapore for another ASEAN Foreign Ministers retreat.

March was a mad month. It was Tokyo for the UN University’s program on Peace Building, direct to Sydney for Harvard University’s annual Vision 21 Conference, co-hosted by the Australian National University in Sydney. I was informed that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was about to leave for Washington, D.C., and the Australians were kind enough to seat me next to him during the opening dinner. It was there that Mr. Rudd decided to make his major foreign policy speech for the benefit of the world and the leaders gathered there.

I’ve known Mr. Rudd since early 2002, when I was his guest on a walk along Nusa Beach, a hundred kilometers north of Brisbane, his parliamentary constituency. “When you next visit Jakarta as the new Prime Minister of Australia, I whispered, “Please consider paying a visit to the ASEAN Secretariat there. You would make history as the first head of government of a dialogue partner to do so.” I understand the Australian Foreign Ministry took the message seriously. We’re waiting for him to do us an honor with his presence.

I went to Beijing in mid-March. To the Great Wall, to be precise. The China Institute for International Affairs, an affiliate of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, co-hosted an international retreat. With China’s rising profile, their diplomatic leadership has been interested in the concept of international mediation. Its traditional principle of non-interference notwithstanding, the world has seen signs of China breaking away from her traditional mold of diplomacy and engaging herself more and more in the world’s issues, from Darfur in Sudan, to Northeast Asia, to the continent of Africa, to Central Asia, to ASEAN.

I had the opportunity to call on Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Beijing. He assured me of China’s commitment to support ASEAN and its work to promote peace and prosperity in East Asia. I expressed my view that ASEAN should know more about the new westward strategy that Beijing is following in her efforts to move the center of economic growth inland to the western provinces. Since the coastal region in the East has now achieved a high degree of development, the gravity of development will be in the 12 western provinces. ASEAN potential investors and business people should learn more about this shift as they would be interested in joining these westward waves. We agreed to follow this line of thinking.

And for the first time in the history of the ASEAN Secretariat, a governor of a western province of China, Shaanxi, is visiting us with his team to showcase the opportunity and potential of his province and his region of Western China.

While traveling throughout the capitals of European Dialogue Partners and the capitals of East Asia, Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing, I have kept my diplomatic channel with Washington open. I have many friends, colleagues and acquaintances in the U.S. capital, from Congressional staff, to State Department officials, the World Bank, academic circles, and the powerful business community. I spent a year as a Congressional Fellow under the sponsorship of The Asia Foundation back in 1983-1984 and have kept in touch with my contacts ever since.

A historic gesture on the part of the U.S. Government toward ASEAN came along just when I was completing my First One Hundred days in office. The news arrived on April 9th that the U.S. Senate was conducting a confirmation hearing for the first-ever U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN, Mr. Scott Marciel, who currently holds the position of Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asia and the Pacific.

I know that Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana has been working on this idea for quite some time. I also know that Mr. Keith Luse, Senator Lugar’s senior staffer in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been working on the issue for the past two years. To hear that a confirmation on the position was taking place on Capitol Hill was most welcome news for ASEAN.

It certainly raised our profile on the world stage in a way that few other initiatives could have done. It is a clear gesture that indeed the U.S. means to reengage herself more in the affairs of Southeast Asia, and that ASEAN as a regional organization is being taken seriously by Washington once again. I immediately issued a statement expressing ASEAN’s gratitude and reiterating our hope that other ASEAN Dialogue Partners would soon follow suit.

In January when I was briefed by then out-going Secretary-General, Ambassador Ong Keng Yong of Singapore, he went through every detail of the office that he was leaving behind for me to carry on. Of course matters of finance, personnel, administration, relations with the host country, cooperation with the high officials of member states were covered but he warned me of one thing, “Do not repeat my mistake. Do not micro-manage. Just look at the large picture. Leave the details to your capable deputies and assistants.”

I took his advice to heart. The way I look at it, from my office at the end of that long corridor, is that the challenges are out there. My job is mainly to be a cheerleader of ASEAN. To convince the Dialogue Partners, indeed the world, that 10 small and medium size states in Southeast Asia with 567 million people and a combined GDP of over US$1 trillion, a combined foreign reserve of over US$500 billion, and a track record of impressive economic growth for the past three decades has a bright and prosperous future that they should invest in, pay attention to, and cooperate with. Failing that, they would risk missing a great opportunity to take part in our dynamic future.

This is an exclusive excerpt from Dr. Surin Pitsuwan’s electronic journal, edited for The Asia Foundation and In Asia, following his first 100 days in office as Secretary-General of The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Dr. Surin is a Trustee of The Asia Foundation. His personal views do not reflect those of The Asia Foundation.

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