Veteran diplomat takes charge at key time for Asean
Vietnam's Le Luong Minh will need all his experience to cope with testing times he will face over next five years
Le Luong Minh, the new secretary-general of Asean, is an old hand and veteran diplomat. He said yesterday during the handover ceremony in Jakarta for the five-year tenure as the grouping's new chief that his predecessor, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, has served with distinction. "I look forward to enjoying the comfort of his big shoes," he said humbly. Although Surin will be a hard act to follow, Minh will find his own way.
Minh leads ASEAN at a most critical time in the grouping's 46-year history. Being the first Vietnamese secretary-general of ASEAN also means a lot, because during the Cold War Vietnam was seen as a main enemy of democracy. Now, Vietnam has offered one of its best diplomats to serve ASEAN as it moves into a new era of cooperation.
Minh is a former UN envoy, and is thus well versed in international affairs. During Vietnam's period as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2008 and 2009, he was active at the world body trying to forge peace and reconciliation across the globe.
Minh will benefit from this experience over the next five years, as new challenges are mounting for the regional grouping. He was right to seek early talks with China to work on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. Indeed, this must be one of his top priorities. So far, however, China has not indicated its readiness for such talks, pending the official transition to a new leadership in Beijing.
Of course, as a diplomat from Vietnam, which is one of the ASEAN claimants to disputed territories in the South China Sea, Minh's words and actions will be closely watched and scrutinised by Beijing. He certainly does not have the luxury of impartiality and neutrality that Dr Surin enjoyed as a Thai from a non-claimant country.
But Minh will need to work closely with Thailand as a coordinating country for Asean-China relations over the next three years. Both will have to work in tandem, otherwise the ongoing process to draft the Code of Conduct will be delayed, or even derailed.
Beyond the various maritime disputes, Minh will have to deal with issues related to community building in Asean. The deadline for implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) at the end of 2015 is approaching fast, and several ASEAN members have still not displayed the much-needed political will to push the project forward in a unified manner.
Sad but true, the AEC is getting the lion's share of publicity while other areas of cooperation - political, security, social and cultural - are equally important. In fact, the success of the AEC will no be possible without tangible progress on these other pillars.
Minh will serve as a good link between the old and new ASEAN members. Vietnam has played a leading role in ASEAN since it joined the grouping in 1995, fulfilling its long-standing aim of becoming integrated with the regional community and economies.
Minh believes that ASEAN will meet all the challenges that come its way, and emerge triumphant. This is a good attitude to take as the head of an organisation with 10 members that often have very different worldviews from each other. Nevertheless, he will have a tough job as the international as well as regional landscapes shift markedly. He will need all the support he can get from the ASEAN Secretariat's staff, the 10 members as well as the grouping's external dialogue partners, which have added to its value and strength.