Asia News Network (The Straits Times) | World | Thu, July 26 2012, 1:05 PM
ASEAN’s progress as a grouping has made it an attractive target for external powers, according to its secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan, who warned against escalating tensions over the South China Sea.
The ‘projection of power’ could derail ASEAN’s efforts at negotiating a peaceful settlement of territorial disputes in the area, he told The Straits Times in an interview.
He said: “I’m concerned that the situation is going to evolve too quick, too fast, and that could put too much pressure on the (peaceful) process we are trying to build.
“That process is step by step… from political intent to practical implementation to a binding code of conduct. This cannot be derailed; it is in the interest of everyone to move it forward, but what is evolving is of concern that it could affect, if not derail, the momentum.”
Dr Surin, a former Thai foreign minister, was speaking a day after China trumpeted its newest municipality, Sansha, in the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
Two ASEAN members, the Philippines and Vietnam, immediately slammed the move. Both countries, along with fellow ASEAN members Malaysia and Brunei, and Taiwan and China, have overlapping claims on territories in the region.
Tensions have simmered for several years but escalated this year with increased naval activities by China, Vietnam and the Philippines in the disputed areas.
Dr Surin, whose five-year term ends this December, said he was not surprised by the power rivalry being played out in ASEAN’s backyard.
He said: “I don’t think you can say, ‘Please don’t pay any attention to us’, to anybody because we have become more important to the world compared to 10 years ago, so it’s natural that all this pressure will be built up. The question is how to handle this.”
Dr Surin did not refer to any specific power although he made a reference to “one major external party who happens to be a dialogue partner”.
Both China and the United States are dialogue partners of ASEAN.
Washington has also increasingly played its hand in the South China Sea issue, calling for restraint from all parties and a peaceful resolution of disputes.
Dr Surin said ASEAN leaders had to demonstrate unity during their summit in November which would be followed by the East Asia Summit, which includes China.
Last week, a whistle-stop tour of five ASEAN countries by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa managed to break the deadlock at a recent foreign ministers meeting, with the release of a statement outlining the bloc’s common position on six points related to the South China Sea.
Dr Surin disclosed that members were also working on the text of a joint communiqué so that they could issue it ahead of the meetings in Phnom Penh in November.
He said he hoped the text would be ready before September 24, when ASEAN leaders will meet each other on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York.
The ASEAN secretary-general warned that failure to issue a joint communiqué would affect the confidence and psychology of the region and taint the cohesive image of the bloc.