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No longer a toothless tiger
ASEANAFFAIRS ’ interview with
Ong Keng Yong, Asean Secretary General

Proposed Asean reforms have a good chance of giving the organization ‘more teeth,’ said Ong Keng Yong, Secretary-General of Asean. On the sidelines of the Asean meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, the outgoing chief gave an exclusive interview to Mikhail Tsyganov, ASEANAFFAIRS correspondent based in Indonesia.

Q: Asean is not only busy with its own integration now, but it also intends to be the core of the future East Asian Community. What kind of a community is it, if it includes New Zealand but does not include the largest East Asian nation, Russia?

A: This is just a working name. When the possibility of integration with our dialogue partners (Australia, the EU, India, China, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and Japan) was for the first time considered practically, we were first of all interested not in their geographic location or size, but in the level of their relations with the Asean member states. Asean now has several possible directions of external cooperation: first of all, with China, South Korea, Japan and, further on, Russia; secondly, Australia and New Zealand; thirdly,

India and our good friend Pakistan. And we thought: "Why don't we start with the magic number of 16?" Just don't ask me why it is 16. I do not know.

Q: Yet when I asked Mahathir Mohamad, the former Malaysian prime minister who first came up with the EAC initiative in the early 1990s, about its current composition, he said that the current community was not what he had expected it to be and it would be proper to call it Australasian.

A: I should admit, we did not expect that the idea would generate so much interest. Honestly speaking, we believed that some invitees would turn us down. Japan, for example, has difficult relations with China and South Korea and we thought that Tokyo might be not very interested in the EAC. Yet it did not happen. You know how it sometimes happens in politics: a timely idea catches fire, and then this fire feeds itself. The good thing is that the EAC helped us to learn about interest in Asean as well, notably, about interest on the part of Russia. This learning helps us develop our relations.

Q: Yet for the first time in many years Russia is not taking part in the dialogue with Asean.

A: So what? There are no representatives from the United States or Canada in Cebu, although they are also our "partners in the dialogue." The EU is here only because we have urgent trade issues and France is joining the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. We are perfectly aware that Russia is already here, close to us, and the US is not far behind, on the other bank of the river. It is just that the agenda of our relations with Russia does not have any urgent issues now. At the first Asean-Russia summit held in 2005 in Kuala Lumpur, which was attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin, we decided that there was no need to meet every year. Especially if the previous year was so rich in bilateral top-level contacts. I personally visited Moscow in October, and my deputy went there the following month.

Q: What is going on in Russia-Asean relations now?

A.: The most important thing is that we now have a plan of action for developing our cooperation. As far as I know, it has already been submitted for your parliament's
approval, which is necessary to ensure proper financing. Without it, any great idea risks remaining just an idea, in the end. So Asean-Russia relations are gradually becoming a two-way street.

Q: During the first Asean meeting in Cebu in December last year, which was interrupted by the typhoon, the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), set up at the Kuala Lumpur summit, voiced some of its proposals on reforming the Association. What do you think of them?

A.: The EPG report is of great importance for Asean’s further development. First of all, for the first time the principles and goals of the Association were laid out together in one place. Secondly, the report urges that Asean be ‘legalized’, so to speak, in all of the member states, i.e. that national laws be passed making Asean a legal entity
in each member country.

Q: What is the main direction of reform proposed by the EPG?

A.: It first of all seeks to institutionalise the Asean. Not to give more power to its executive bodies, but to streamline its structure. For example, there is the following proposal: each member state could send a special envoy to Jakarta (where the Asean Secretariat is located). Unlike secretaries general for Asean affairs from national
foreign ministries, these envoys will deal not only with foreign policy, but with comprehensive relations between their respective countries and Asean. So we will
need fewer expensive and time-consuming meetings, while coordination and efficiency will improve. The proposal to set up three ministerial councils for each of the pillars of the planned Asean Community (politics and security, economy, the social and cultural sphere) pursues the same goal. For example, several ministers in each country can work on social and cultural issues, but only one of them will be on the council representing all.

Q: Now many compare Asean to a toothless tiger: declarations are many, but leverages are none.

A: Well, the EPG report proposes partially abandoning the principle of consensus, which is now necessary for any Asean decision. In certain areas, decisions could
be made by a majority. It is still unclear how it will be done, details will have to be worked out. But the trend is obvious. We are also beginning to raise the issue of the member states’ obligations, because now they have only rights. But it is very important to find the right wording for the proposals: none of the countries should feel resentment.

Q: But no matter what the wording is, it is easy to predict that some proposals will meet vehement opposition on the part of Asean’s younger members.

A: Not necessarily. The cake we offer has enough pieces for all. The EPG report envisages measures to help those who have not yet come on board fully. For example, it
proposes that Asean should have permanent revenues to finance programs that will reduce the gap between the more and the less developed member states. At present this is done through one-time voluntary donations by wealthier countries, but some have proposed replacing this with a permanent system.

Q: EPG recommendations will be considered by Asean heads of state and government in Cebu and included in the draft Asean Charter, which will be signed at the anniversary summit in Singapore at the end of the year. What are the chances, in your opinion, that what you have said will remain in the draft that will be approved in a few days?

A.: 60/40, I believe 60/40. My younger colleagues say it is 70/30, but I am more cautious (laughing). There is a good chance that Asean will get some teeth.


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