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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Expanding regional ties prove ASEAN's relevance

Expanding regional ties prove ASEAN's relevance


ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino speaks to the Post.

Rodolfo Severino: The region's terrorism risk has been over-stated.

There have been criticisms that ASEAN is losing

its influence as a regional player. Is its significance decreasing, or is it

still playing an important part in the region?

If you look at the countries and regions with which we are dealing, they have

shown a rather intense interest in expanding and elevating relations with us.

For example we are now having a summit with India, which we did not have


And relations with China, Japan and [South] Korea are now moving

ahead. Also at this meeting we are concluding several important agreements with


Just a few days ago President Bush of the United States met the

ASEAN leaders in Mexico and announced a new initiative that he calls Enterprise

for ASEAN, in which the US within the ASEAN framework would seek to tighten

economic relations with each ASEAN country. So if ASEAN were decreasing in its

importance, these countries would not be seeking closer relations with it - it

doesn't make sense.

In that case, given that it is a regional bloc and

we see around the world the expansion of regional blocs, for example the EU, is

there any chance ASEAN will take in new nations, such as East Timor, and is it

looking to expand into perhaps something bigger than just Southeast Asian


ASEAN was founded as an Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the

Bangkok Declaration refers to the openness of ASEAN to all Southeast Asian

nations. That kind of limits it to Southeast Asian nations.

East Timor

has the opportunity to discuss with ASEAN countries the terms of its future

relationship with ASEAN and with each ASEAN country. East Timor was present at

the last ASEAN ministerial meeting as a guest of Brunei, and will be attending

the next one. So there is ample chance.

So why is East Timor not at

this meeting?

Well, because they are not members of ASEAN. This is an ASEAN summit and

there is no occasion for East Timor to do something [with] ASEAN at this


ASEAN has moved more from being a political grouping towards

being an economic one. Are you concerned that as member states sign bilateral

trade deals with other nations, the grouping could end up with a complicated

array of deals between members and other nations?

No I am not bothered by that. Each ASEAN country has its own needs, and as

long as these bilateral agreements are consistent with the [rules of the] WTO

and the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) then that's fine. I don't see that doing

any harm, as long as they are not in conflict with the provisions of ASEAN


So you don't think a proliferation of bilateral and

multilateral agreements is going to cause difficulties in the future?

No. Why should they?

Because each comes with its own conditions and


That's fine, as long as they can handle that administratively. In any case

our concern is that ASEAN should move ahead with regional economic integration

among the ten. And if some member countries want to strike deals with other

countries, then that's fine.

Cambodia is the newest and poorest member

of ASEAN. What concerns does that bring to ASEAN, given that it is substantially

better-off than Cambodia, and what can ASEAN do beyond the Initiative for ASEAN

Integration (IAI) to bring Cambodia up to a better level?

First it is not the practice of ASEAN to exclude a member because it is poor,

so we feel the way to handle the disparities is to try to help the newer members

narrow the development gap.

We think that through their membership in

ASEAN they will have incentives to adopt the effective policies and open up

their economies in a gradual way first to ASEAN then to the rest of the


Three of these newer members are not yet members of the WTO, so by

joining AFTA they can kind of get their feet wet in terms of plugging in to the

global economy.

Terrorism and security has emerged as a key issue -

what new plans does ASEAN have to counter what happened in Bali, and how

effective can that be, given the differences in levels of expertise among

different members?

Some ASEAN countries have been dealing with terrorism for a long time.

Another thing is that there has been for a long time rather intensive

cooperation among the intelligence agencies of ASEAN, and more recently among

the law enforcement agencies - even before September 11 when terrorism became a

kind of over-arching concept.

Now September 11 has focused this effort

and has prodded ASEAN into stepping up cooperation in law enforcement and

intelligence exchanges and so on. One result of this were the arrests in

Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines of potential and actual terrorists. I

don't think these arrests would have been made if information had not been

shared; if intelligence had not been exchanged.

We will just have to deal

with this the best way we can by building up the capacity of law enforcement

agencies in each country, and strengthening cooperation among


But there must be concerns with somewhere like Cambodia, which

is widely regarded as a weak link with issues of corruption, drug running and

gun running. These are significant issues and there are potential links to

terrorism. Is ASEAN especially concerned about Cambodia?

No, not especially about Cambodia. There are mechanisms for intensifying

cooperation on transnational crime, including smuggling of weapons, drug

trafficking, trafficking in persons, now cyber-crime, piracy, and of course


But these are by and large mainly national responsibilities.

That doesn't mean there is no room for cooperation. In fact as I have said,

cooperation has been stepped up.

But would you agree that Cambodia

must be regarded as a weak link in all of this?

No, not necessarily.

Even with the reports of massive amounts of drugs moving through here, and

that well-connected people are involved in such acts?

I don't know of that.

Moving on to tourism: this is something

member states rely on economically. In the wake of the Bali bombing, what steps

can ASEAN take to ensure people still keep coming to the region and spending

their money?

We are going to conclude a tourism agreement tomorrow [November 4]. This

agreement provides for the opening up of transport services, particularly air

transport, the facilitation of entry formalities, the sharing of professional

and technical manpower in the tourism business, the conservation of the

environment and the cultural heritage.

[Also we are] agreeing on

traveler-friendly communications, such as standardization of road signs, the

prevention of the use of tourism for the abuse of people - particularly women

and children - and of course stepping up cooperation in ensuring the safety of


Clearly the Bali attacks were a setback - most of those injured

were either tourists or workers in the tourism industry, so that's pretty bad.

But this agreement is for the long-term. And we can't stop promoting and

developing tourism just because of these attacks, otherwise we would be allowing

the terrorists to defeat us.

And this is why some ASEAN countries are

concerned at the rather indiscriminate designation of whole countries for travel

advisories. Questions are being asked as to why Russia isn't the subject of an

advisory after what happened in Moscow, or just the State of New York after what

happened with the World Trade Center.

Do you think the region has been

unfairly tarnished after Bali?

I think so, but I am not sure what the reason for that is, but this one

incident was a very grave incident. It should have been prevented from

happening; it should be prevented from happening again,. But to designate one

whole country as a danger area I think is going a little bit too


The IAI is a major plank to bridge the development gap between

rich members and poor, but aren't these gaps simply too big?

Well, we can't close it very quickly, but the newer members know what they

need, and they recognize that the key to development is human resources. So

there is a lot of attention being given to training, even to things like putting

together project proposals. Human resource development doesn't cost very much

money. As far as infrastructure is concerned, that is where the Asian

Development Bank comes in because they have the money and the expertise to move

things in that direction.

We are also paying attention to the use of

information and communications technology. One measure is to consolidate

government efforts in information communications technology by having focal

points with which we can deal and cooperate.

Then we are trying to

develop seamless telecommunications within the region. Obviously Singapore and

Malaysia are well ahead of the others, followed by Thailand, Indonesia and the

Philippines, but we just have to make use of these new technologies.


we have to develop the capacity of these countries for regional economic

integration. In other words, training and negotiating trade agreements,

[raising] awareness of the advantages of free trade and economic integration.

So we are not setting impossible targets. And the rest they just have to

do for themselves - there are limits to what we can do as a region short of

transferring resources which ASEAN doesn't do, unlike the European Union. But

ASEAN's older members have their own programs of assistance, so it's not as if

we are just asking the international community to take


Some of the richer members are doing a lot more than

others - is there frustration that some countries are getting away with helping


No, not really. Indonesia for example is in economic straits right now, but

still it has offered to do something by way of training [and] energy [matters].

And the Philippines has done some training in diplomacy and the English


Does ASEAN see its future in a close economic relationship

with China, and can it have a strong future outside a Chinese economic


There is a Chinese challenge. Clearly China poses a competitive challenge,

and of course we also see opportunities there.

In the face of this

challenge, ASEAN has two options - do you close yourself off from China and

crouch in fear, or do you engage it more closely to see how you can manage the

challenge and take advantage of the opportunities? Clearly ASEAN has decided on

the second course.

The agreement on the Spratly Islands is an

important step to resolving this dispute. How much interest has China shown in

resolving this, and what will come out of this summit?

What will come out of this meeting is the signature on this declaration on

behavioral norms in the South China Sea. Although not all ASEAN countries have

claims in the South China Sea, all of ASEAN was interested in the stability of

this area and making sure these disputes don't develop into armed


So we proposed this code of conduct, and at first there was

great reluctance on the part of China, which arose from its misgivings about

dealing with ASEAN as a group on this kind of matter. Initially they preferred

to deal bilaterally with the other claimants.

However over a couple of

years they came around and embraced this idea of having a code of conduct. To me

just the process of negotiating a code of conduct had a stabilizing effect,

because while the discussions were taking place no [major] new incidents were

taking place.

I think that the conclusion of the code of conduct will be

an important step. Of course you're asking whether this will lead to the

settlement of this dispute - I think we will not see the final settlement of the

territorial and jurisdictional disputes in a very long time.

Ever? In

our lifetime?

Probably not in my lifetime. I don't know about yours.

On a more

personal level, your tenure comes to an end in the next few weeks. What do you

regard as your greatest achievement within ASEAN?

I don't think of this as any person's achievement. ASEAN works with the

member states, the staff of the secretariat, the officials, the ministers. It is

an organic process.

When I came in we had a financial crisis. That was a

really big development, and kind of brought down ASEAN's image. Another thing

was the haze problem. At the same time we were expanding the membership rather

quickly, [from six to ten].

And then we had the rise of China, to some extent India, the development of

other regional groups, the march of globalization. So we have had plenty of


Now what was ASEAN's response to this? One was that ASEAN

began to cooperate more in financial matters, and doing this in two ways. One

was we set up the surveillance and peer-review process so that the finance

ministries and the central banks would have a collective view of the economy.

They would do this periodically so they were not caught by surprise, and they

would encourage one another to adopt sound micro-economic policies.


other area was the network of currency swap arrangements of which 11 have

already been concluded. There are other things in the works, like how to monitor

short-term capital movements, and we are studying the coordination of exchange


And the other response at the regional level is to accelerate the

ASEAN Free Trade Area, and this has been done. Where we are at now is that we

have almost done away with tariff barriers - but there is more to regional

integration that that.

We need to identify and remove non-tariff

barriers, we have to liberalize trade in services, we have to strengthen

transportation links, including air services, we have to have seamless

telecommunications systems, harmonize product standards, and all of


Is there an appetite within ASEAN for these moves?

Certainly there is movement in that - why do you think there are so many

meetings? They are all about these things. But for my taste they are going much

too slowly, so one of my parting messages is: 'Come on, hurry up.'


if they don't speed up?

Then they lose competitiveness.

So what's next for you - we heard

you might be doing some work for Cambodia?

I will be spending a lot of time here, but [only] for the first half of the

year. I will be doing whatever they ask me to do, sharing my knowledge and

experience. Beyond that I will be joining the Asian Institute of Management in

Manila, and doing some teaching, some writing and some consulting.



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