Interview: Le Luong Minh
What is the ASEAN Secretariat’s role following ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) integration?
LE LUONG MINH: It is the role of the ASEAN Secretariat, led by the secretary-general of ASEAN, to facilitate and monitor the progress in the implementation of ASEAN agreements and decisions.
In the AEC, the ASEAN Secretariat, through the ASEAN Integration Monitoring Office, provides core support to monitor and track the implementation of ASEAN agreements and decisions, and the compliance to the commitments under the AEC Blueprint. Monitoring efforts are also complemented at the sectoral and national levels.
Post-2015, ASEAN will aim to put in place an enhanced monitoring framework that goes beyond the current compliance monitoring. This will strengthen the outcomes and the impact evaluation of the AEC Blueprint 2025.
Underscoring the importance of stakeholder awareness and active engagement to the success of the AEC, the ASEAN Secretariat will assist member states in systematically disseminating information on the implementation of the various measures under the AEC to the general public. Active consultation and engagement with the private sector and other stakeholders will also be enhanced to encourage greater and broader participation in the overall regional economic integration process.
How can ASEAN best address weaknesses highlighted by the Rohingya crisis and the ongoing South-China-Sea dispute?
MINH: ASEAN has always emphasised dialogue and cooperation in addressing issues affecting the region, including Rohingya and the South-China-Sea dispute. In July 2015, an emergency meeting was convened to discuss ASEAN’s levels of support for emergency humanitarian and relief efforts regarding the irregular movement of persons in South-east Asia. The meeting took the decision to establish a trust fund to support humanitarian and relief efforts. The terms of reference for the trust fund are in the process of being developed.
It is ASEAN’s long-standing position that the territorial disputes in the South China Sea must be settled by peaceful means and in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. There is a widening gap between the diplomatic track and the reality at sea where massive and rapid reclamation and construction activities are taking place, changing the status quo and going counter to the spirit of the Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea (DOC).
In view of this gap, there is an even greater and more urgent need for full and effective implementation of the DOC, which should be pursued in more concrete and operational terms, such as developing dos and don’ts lists to promote actions that conform to the DOC and prevent destabilising acts that violate the DOC. At the same time, incidents taking place have made it even more urgent for early conclusion of a legally binding code of conduct (COC), which should be capable of not only preventing but also managing such incidents without accepting or in any way being interpreted as legitimising the fait accompli.
ASEAN has consistently stressed the urgent need for ASEAN and China to enter into substantive negotiations on the structure and elements of the COC with a concrete timeline. At a recent ASEAN-China Senior Officials Meeting in Tianjin, both sides agreed that the COC consultations will enter a new phase where all the crucial, sensitive and complicated elements will be tabled for deliberation.
How will forthcoming free trade agreements (FTAs) affect ASEAN trade and investment?
MINH: There has been a proliferation of bilateral and regional FTAs in the Asia-Pacific region. Among them are two major regional ones in which ASEAN member states are participating: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
The TPP is a significant agreement, recently concluded by 12 countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region, including four ASEAN member states ( Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam). The RCEP is envisaged as a modern, comprehensive, high-quality and mutually-beneficial economic partnership agreement that would support ASEAN community achievement and deeper economic integration in the Asia-Pacific region.
Both these agreements, by virtue of their broad memberships, will provide opportunities to harmonise rules and regulations across economies which will likely result in decreasing costs for doing business across borders. They can also serve as building blocks in support of the global multilateral trading system.
The RCEP negotiation process involving ASEAN as a group will consolidate and seek to significantly improve the existing FTAs between countries, while recognising the individual and diverse circumstances of the participating countries. The RCEP will include provisions to facilitate trade and investment and to enhance transparency in trade and investment relations between the participating countries, as well as to facilitate the participating countries’ engagement in global and regional supply chains.
In 2014, trade and investment relations among RCEP economies remained strong, with total trade reaching $10.8trn (28.4% of global trade) and total foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows amounting to $366.3bn (29.8% of total FDI inflows). To ensure that no ASEAN member states are marginalised from the regional process, RCEP will include appropriate forms of flexibility, including provision for special and differential treatment, plus additional flexibility to the least-developed ASEAN states. These inclusions are consistent with the ASEAN region’s pursuit of equitable economic development.
Upon successful conclusion, the RCEP would spur economic dynamism through better market access and deeper economic integration, create shared opportunities and help to improve the standard of living for hundreds of millions of people in the region. In 2014, RCEP economies’ combined output stood at $22.7trn, which accounts for 29.3% of world output.
To what extent could the ASEAN community benefit from increased funding for its secretariat and greater involvement from member states?
MINH: Increased funding and resources are required by the ASEAN Secretariat to ensure that it will be able to carry out its growing roles and functions. This will allow it to effectively support ASEAN in its post-2015 journey, which will deepen and broaden ASEAN’s integration and connectivity and create a more robust and dynamic ASEAN community.
The ASEAN leaders have approved the recommendations of the High-level Task Force on Strengthening the ASEAN Secretariat and Reviewing the ASEAN Organs. The recommendations are comprehensive, encompassing proposed system improvements, the need for greater resources and a broadening of functions. They are commensurate with the increased expectations of ASEAN and its stature and standing in the global community of nations.
Initiatives are under way, including the restructuring of the current secretariat’s organisational structure, the optimisation of the knowledge management system, the improvement in the recruitment system and the development of the IT infrastructure. These undertakings are geared toward a strong, competent ASEAN Secretariat. The secretariat has been working closely with the ASEAN member states to secure the budget needed for the complete implementation of the recommendations by the high-level task force.
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