Priorities for the New ASEAN Secretary-General

The article is published in Thinking ASEAN Issue 31 / January 2018

On Friday, 5 January 2018, Dato Paduka Lim Jock Hoi officially assumed the office of ASEAN Secretary- General at a handover ceremony held at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. Replacing the outgoing Le Luong Minh who served from 2013 – 2017, the former Permanent Secretary at the Bruneian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade faces a number of priorities that will need to be addressed in the coming days, weeks and months. Among them are a number of special summits, the South China Sea, and the RCEP negotiations. Longer term priorities include realizing a people-centred and people-oriented ASEAN. This paper attempts to explore some of these priorities in further details.

Special Summits with Australia and India

All ten ASEAN Leaders are expected to attend India’s Republic Day celebrations on 26 January 2018. Underscoring Indian Prime Minister’s Narenda Modi’s ‘Act East Policy’ and forming the high point of the celebrations to mark the 25th year of ASEAN-India relations, this will be the first time that the celebration’s chief guest comes from a bloc of nations rather than an individual country. Previous leaders that were afforded such honour were then- French President Francois Hollande in 2016, then-US President Barack Obama in 2015, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2014, while various Southeast Asian leaders have previously attended as representatives of their own country rather than of ASEAN.

Reciprocating the importance that India is placing on its relationship with ASEAN, it was notable that on the very next day after Secretary-General Lim took on his new position - a day when most were enjoying their weekend – he was instead ‘punching the company clock’, opening the 5th Roundtable of ASEAN-Indian Network of Think Tanks at an event that also featured the Indonesian Foreign Minister, and the Indian External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj.

Meanwhile from 17-18 March 2018, the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit will also be a first, as Australia looks to reciprocate a similar gathering that took place in Vientiane, Lao PDR in September 2016. Back then, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnball had called for the event to be made a regular one alternating between an ASEAN country and Australia every two years. Like with India, Canberra is seeking to strengthen its strategic partnership with ASEAN and will serve to demonstrate its continued commitment as ASEAN’s oldest Dialogue Partner.

The South China Sea

Secretary-General Lim’s first year in office will also coincide with the 15th year of ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership; a partnership that continues to be overshadowed by the competing claims of Beijing and several ASEAN member- states over the South China Sea. Unlike previous years, 2017 was a relatively quiet one in terms of the South China Sea with no major incident – either militarily or diplomatically – taking place. Indeed the Chairman’s Statement of the 31st ASEAN Summit, which was held on 13 November 2017 in Manila, noted ‘the improving relations between ASEAN and China’ as well as the ‘positive momentum’ with regards to the South China Sea issue.1 Demonstrating such positive momentum was the agreement on a framework for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

However, it is questionable to what extent this can be considered as an achievement. Sixteen years have passed since the non- binding Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea of 2002 had first called for a Code of Conduct. In that time Beijing has been accused of changing the realities on the ground, reclaiming islands in the disputed area and installing military facilities. China is not alone in conducting such activities – several ASEAN claimants have also done their own reclamations in the South China Sea; any Code of Conduct in the new realities will automatically be rendered irrelevant. The question of how far ASEAN can press on its largest trade partner on the South China Sea issue, whilst taking into consideration the wider strategic partnership, will be a delicate one for Secretary-General Lim to address.

Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)

Despite high hopes that negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) would be concluded in 2017, it was instead announced that more talks were needed. While the decision of the United States to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has put greater attention on RCEP, it is now the third time that the deadline for the mega free trade agreement involving ASEAN and its six FTA partners has been pushed back since the first round of negotiations began in 2013.

Indian resistance has in particular been cited as one of the key stumbling blocks with New Delhi insisting that the services sector – where it is a global leader - should be opened up in return for the liberization of tariff barriers for goods.2 Such demands have been made to offset concerns that India would be flooded by goods produced in China and other RCEP members, however the latter remain sensitive to discussions on services liberalization as well as the associated freedom of movement for professionals.3

One diplomat observed that the TPP’s stalled progress had in some ways removed the urgency to conclude RCEP and may prove a curse rather than a blessing. In the case of Secretary-General Lim, his previous role as Brunei’s chief negotiator in the TPP may prove a valuable asset in pushing for the early conclusion of RCEP.

A People-Centred, People-Oriented ASEAN

The longer term goal of realizing a people- centred, people-oriented ASEAN remains a challenge for the regional organisation. Recognizing criticisms that the regional organisation was elitist and out of touch, ASEAN opened up its interaction with the business community in the early 1970s, and later began engaging with the region’s intellectuals and a handful of so- called ‘ASEAN-affiliated non-governmental organisations’ in subsequent decades. In the late 1990s, ASEAN began its engagement with the wider civil society organisations and by the turn of the 21st century ‘a people-centred, people- oriented ASEAN’ gained in popularity amongst ASEAN policy makers.

It is in this regard that ASEAN’s 50th anniversary attempted to involve the public by holding a number of events. In Indonesia for example there was an ‘ASEAN 50’ parade held on 27 August 2017. However, despite such events putting ASEAN in the public spotlight, it cannot be denied that ASEAN awareness remains low in the region. Indeed much of the fanfare for
ASEAN’s golden celebration quickly has been forgotten despite the best efforts of the regional organization.

While many will argue that the three pillars that make up the ASEAN Community
– the political-security, economic and socio-cultural – are equally important and mutually reinforcing, it could also be argued that greater focus should be placed on the economic sector in order to make the public care about ASEAN. Subscribing to the adage, ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ the best way to raise public awareness of ASEAN is by ensuring the regional organisation matters for them in terms of creating jobs, providing food, and offering greater opportunities. It is in this sense that the early conclusion of the RCEP is crucial as it also relates to raising the public’s awareness of ASEAN.

Concluding Thoughts

It was notable that both the new and outgoing Secretary-Generals called on the ASEAN Secretariat to enhance its analytical and research capacity. Secretary- General Lim, for example, remarked that he would look to ‘enhance the analytical and research capacity of the ASEAN Secretariat.’4 Meanwhile Le Luong Minh stated,‘ASEAN would benefit from a more professional Secretariat with sufficient expertise and confidence to inject frank and objective inputs.’5 Here it may be argued that the source of such frank and objective inputs should not be from the ASEAN Secretariat alone. Civil society should also be afforded the space to take part, with ASEAN making use of the expertise and knowledge that the former possesses.

It will certainly be a challenging first few days, weeks, and months for the new Secretary-General but he should know that he is not in this endeavour alone. As he rightly remarked,‘Let us work together to bring ASEAN to greater heights.’ Indeed, let’s!

1 ASEAN (2017). Chairman’s Statement of the 31st ASEAN Summit, 13 November 2017, Manila, Philippines. Retrieved from:
chairman%E2%80%99s-statement-of-31st-asean-summit. pdf
2 Ranjana Narayan (2017).‘Is India Demanding Too Much from the RCEP Trade’, The Quint August 29. Retrieved from: keen-but-december-deadline-for-rcep-looks-unlikley
3 Ibid.

4 ASEAN (2018). Remarks by H.E. Dato Lim Jock Hoi, Secretary-General of ASEAN (2018-2022), Handover Ceremony for the Transfer of Office of the Secretary-General of ASEAN, Jakarta, 5 January 2018. Retrieved from: http://
Remarks-for-the-Handover-Ceremony-5-Jan-2018_FINAL- II.pdf
5 ASEAN (2018). Remarks by H.E. Le Luong Minh, Secretary- General of ASEAN (2013-2017), Handover Ceremony for the Transfer of Office of the Secretary-General of ASEAN, Jakarta, 5 January 2018. Retrieved from: storage/2018/01/Remarks_Handover-SG-Minh.pdf

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