It is Vietnam’s turn to provide the secretary general who will lead Asean for the next five years. Is the country’s sole candidate the man for the job?
By Sacha Passi
With a bloc struggling to adhere to the maxim that ‘united we stand, divided we fall’, the challenge awaiting Le Luong Minh – the touted successor to Surin Pitsuwan’s Asean secretary general posting – is daunting.
“Le Luong Minh certainly has some big shoes to fill,” said Michael Plummer, a professor of International Economics at Johns Hopkins University. “Dr Surin did a great job. He was secretary general during a key period in Asean’s history and he certainly rose to the challenge. He was an articulate spokesman for the grouping; a strong advocate for Asean’s interests, and a great leader.”
Perhaps most notably Surin has carved a path for the incoming secretary general to play a more influential role in Asean initiatives beyond the ‘secretarial’ duties outlined in the Asean Charter. Far from being just the nominated facilitator and monitor of progress, the role of secretary general has evolved into being a leading force behind the bloc.
As Asean heads into a period of uncertainty marred by questions about its ability to strengthen regional lines and foster relations between non-member partners, the incoming helmsman will have a steep climb ahead in overseeing moves towards the politically cohesive, economically integrated and socially responsible community the regional body is striving for.
Working to an alphabetical rotation, it is Vietnam’s turn to provide the nominee for the five-year post. The country’s deputy foreign minister has been put forward as the sole candidate. At the age of 59 – one year before mandatory retirement for politicians and diplomats below the rank of Central Committee members – Minh’s political shelf life was prolonged by the nomination.
“It appears the government values his service and due to his unusual experiences he is well qualified for the job… some Vietnamese diplomats would consider him the most experienced and ‘clever’ expert in multilateral diplomacy,” said Hung Nguyen, former Fulbright Scholar and a Vietnam government and political expert.
Following the anticipated approval of his position at November’s Asean summit in Phnom Penh, Minh will have just over a month before a career move that has been more than 35 years in the making.
Minh brings strong qualifications in international affairs to the position, most notably from his time as Vietnam’s ambassador to the United Nations and president of the UN Security Council. Despite his success in the international multilateral environment he has managed to keep a relatively low profile while working the Geneva and New York ambassadorial circuits. “He certainly does not have as extroverted a personality as Surin Pitsuwan, but then not many diplomats do,” said Raymond Burghardt, a retired US ambassador to Vietnam.
During his tenure Minh will likely see in the Asean Economic Community, face the increasing challenge of regional centrality and facilitate negotiations for consensus on the South China Sea.
Minh has openly criticised China’s violations in the South China Sea area, often pointing out the need for the powerhouse to strictly comply with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, of which China is a signatory.
While a resolution to the dispute won’t necessarily arise during Minh’s tenure, the ability of the incoming secretary general to avoid getting bogged down in the existing stalemate and remain impartial may be the ultimate test of his diplomacy.
“Taking too hard a line with respect to South China Sea matters will make work in other areas of policy, economics and social affairs more challenging,” said Andrew Billo, a political expert with Asia Society. “It is hoped that his experience at the UN will help him in steering the international community to have a constructive role in Asean – and the South China Sea conflict. Minh has skills that should be invaluable for his post, but it remains to be seen if he can swap his loyalties to Vietnam for a neutral stance in Asean.”
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