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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.