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Words of Wisdom from Outgoing ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan

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The end of the new year is also the end of ASEAN’s Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan’s five year term in his position. In an article for The Diplomat, I took a look at the advice Surin has been offering Southeast Asia before leaving his post. 

At the end of this year, ASEAN’s dynamic Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan will officially leave his post after five eventful years. Over the last year or so, as he has been reflecting on his tenure in the position, he has been offering his advice on how the organization can confront the vast array of future challenges that lie before it.

One issue Surin has spoken about is Myanmar’s ongoing transformation. This has been one of the most significant developments during Surin’s tenure, and he has been outspoken about it both as a success story for ASEAN and also as a potential concern. Asked recently what the main highlight was during his time as Secretary-General, he pointed to ASEAN’s important role in the opening up of Myanmar by “bringing the world in and raising the level of comfort of the leadership” to engage with the international community, which began during the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. For Surin, Myanmar “validated” ASEAN’s approach of giving the country time and space rather than the Western path of slapping it with sanctions.

But the Secretary-General has also offered warnings about ethnic violence in Myanmar, particularly the persecution and discrimination against its minority Rohingya Muslims. In October, Surin proposed setting up tripartite talks between ASEAN, the United Nations and Myanmar despite repeated calls by Naypyidaw that it was an internal matter. “Myanmar believes it is their internal matter,” Surin said in Kuala Lumpur, “but your internal matter could be ours the next day if you are not careful”. His comments applied not only to Myanmar, but also to the broader debate about the applicability of ASEAN’s prized “non-interference” in member states’ affairs. He also warned in no uncertain terms that if sectarian violence in Myanmar was not curbed, the country’s persecuted minority Rohingya Muslims “could become radicalized and the entire region could become destabilized”. He repeatedly urged ASEAN members to extend humanitarian assistance to alleviate the situation.

The Secretary-General has also spoken extensively on the South China Sea (SCS) issue, which led to ASEAN’s failure to issue a joint communique in July for the first time in its history. Surin has said that the SCS has the risk of becoming “Asia’s Palestine” if ASEAN and China do not resolve it quickly. He advocated for a two-pronged approach — putting aside contested claims and minimizing the current potential for miscalculation, while also finding ways to jointly share the natural resources located in the waters. On the first count, he has encouraged ASEAN’s attempts to move forward on talks concerning a code of conduct with China and even publicly floated the idea of a SCS hotline with Beijing to contain miscalculation before a regional summit last month. But he has equally and subtly stressed the need for reciprocity from China. At ASEAN’s November meeting, he noted that while ASEAN was committed to finding a resolution to the SCS issue, “it takes two to tango.”

On sharing resources, in a recent interview he cited a potential “joint development area” emerging between ASEAN countries and China where all parties could tap the resource potential in the SCS. “Leave that [contested territorial disputes] for the future, but along the way let’s benefit from the resources,” Surin said, citing the Malaysia-Thailand Joint Development Area in the Gulf of Thailand as a model.

But most of Surin’s comments have arguably focused on ASEAN’s internal challenges. In an interview at Australian National University earlier this year, he said ASEAN’s greatest challenge during the next five years would be trying to integrate as a grouping despite the diversity among member states. If the organization did not get its act together on forging an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by the end of 2015 to narrow the vast economic divide between countries, Surin said it risked “being a two-tiered ASEAN” which would undermine its efforts to play a central role in Asia-Pacific integration. Asked in February what kept him awake at night, he again focused on ASEAN integration, saying he felt it should “go faster” and was worried that member states were seeking “to keep to themselves.”

Besides the issue of economic integration, the Secretary-General has also placed a lot of emphasis on strengthening the power of the ASEAN Secretariat. Indeed, that was the focus of his last major ASEAN briefing delivered last month. Referring partly to a report he had presented to ASEAN last year on the subject, Surin’s suggestions on strengthening ASEAN’s institutional capacity range from addressing how decisions might be made in the absence of consensus, to formalizing regulations and increasing resources in particular fields.

Stressing the importance of this, Surin claimed, “if the secretariat had been given a larger space, more engagement — the impasse in July could have been avoided — not that I did not try but it is the structure that would not allow me to be involved.” As I have pointed our several times before, having a strong Secretariat will be important as ASEAN is chaired by either smaller or less-developed states in the years ahead, such as Brunei in 2013, Myanmar in 2014 and Laos in 2016.

As Surin steps off the stage, his successor, Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Minister Le Luong Minh, will have large shoes to fill at a critical time for ASEAN. The goal of Surin’s tenure, the outgoing Secretary-General says, was to make ASEAN a household name. On this front, he has largely been successful. But now that all eyes are on ASEAN, it will be up to the grouping’s future leaders to preserve its centrality in the region in the wake of daunting internal and external challenges.

This piece was originally published for The Diplomat. You can read it here.

The Rising Role of Public Private Partnerships in Asian Development

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Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post on the growth of public private partnerships by finance writer Diana Morton. If you wish to contribute to The Asianist, please email 

Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) have long been a method of completing business ventures in the developed Western world. Many of the world’s largest and most challenging construction projects, such as the $3.5 billion Victorian desalination plant in Sydney and the Hudson/Bergen Light Rail in New Jersey, USA, have been made possible by the respective countries’ government teaming up with private sector companies in order to fund and operate the ventures.

In Asia, as many of the continent’s main business hubs continue to grow at an exponential rate, the PPP method is becoming an increasingly effective means to an end. Cities such as Singapore are certainly no strangers to PPPs; in 1994, the government teamed with Singapore conglomerate, Keppel, which formed a private consortium of companies, to invest in the Suzhou Industrial Park in China.  The same group of companies has since been investing in a wide range of public development projects; more recently in 2007, it played a large part in the construction of the Tianjin Eco-City project. However, until recently, the majority of investment and funding in Asian countries has come from their governments.

Private investment

Recent figures released by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) indicate that investment from private companies is now on the rise. This could well be due, in part, to the challenges faced by companies in Western countries; as their economies slow, they are now looking to invest in the development and infrastructure of Asian countries. According to the ADB, as much as 40 per cent of  global infrastructure spending will take place in Asia. With this global figure set to reach USD $40 trillion within the next 20 years, this percentage represents a huge turnaround in the way Asian countries will develop compared with their Western counterparts. This level of investment has only been made possible by the partnership of private companies with governments.

Gaining traction

Wolfgang Schiefer, Chief of Regional Partnerships at the International Labor Organization (ILO), recently said that PPPs were being increasingly used by his organization and were gaining traction in aiding international development. “Public-private partnerships (PPP) have the potential to increase the visibility and advocacy of the ILO,” he said. “They also provide a channel for influencing public and private sector investment, policies, and practices, and so promoting decent work more effectively.”

As countries become more developed, it becomes clearer that governments do not have the necessary expertise to handle large infrastructure projects single-handedly. This is why developing Asian nations are seeing an increase in the number of projects that are operated using a PPP method. The government recognizes that, in order to build the most state-of-the-art and up-to-date buildings, it is necessary to call on the help of private companies, which possess the required levels of expertise to put their projects at the forefront of technology. “A strong PPP recognizes that the public and private sectors each have certain advantages and optimizes the allocation of tasks, obligations and risks to play to these particular strengths,” says Schiefer. “For example, the public sector can offer social responsibility, environmental awareness and local knowledge, while the private sector can offer expertise in commerce, innovation, efficiency, management and operations.”

More complex

However, as levels of development increase, so does the complexity of PPPs. Asia is beginning to see a new breed of PPPs for complex projects such as medical centers and hospitals. Simon Brooker, Director of professional services company, KPMG, says that this change from using discrete PPPs to using those with much more complex infrastructures is due to one main factor. This factor is due to the recognition of the need to scale back government involvement in the service delivery of such projects, instead handing the responsibility to private sector companies. “This is about creating and expanding commercial markets,” he said. “In other cases, economic, funding and liquidity constraints drive interest.”

Widespread benefit

PPPs have the potential to provide the highest quality infrastructures, as they provide the benefit of private sector specialist knowledge along with the security of government backing. This method, in turn, presents the opportunity of creating a more stable nation, especially since 31% of the population in Asian countries currently resides in urban regions. This figure is set to increase to more than 50% by 2050. In turn, creating stable cities and infrastructures will help the continent to deal with the issue of housing finance for low and mid-income families. While promoting the adoption of PPPs, the ADB is also putting into place initiatives for improving access to home mortgage financing. This is in response to the needs of the private sector in developing countries within the Asian continent.

Experts are now calling on Asian governments to draw up long-term national development and infrastructure plans that will encourage increased private sector involvement. This would include putting active measures in place to lower the risk of investment perceived by the private sector. If adoption of PPPs continues to rise, Asia could be on track to ensuring long term stability and prosperity.

Diana Morton is a 29 year old finance writer from England who specializes in personal finance articles for a range of magazines. She enjoys traveling and finding ways to save money on hotels, cruises and exchanging money. Her research was put to good use when she helped to arrange her brother’s marriage in Bali.

Written by Prashanth Parameswaran

August 17, 2012 at 12:09 am

How Does ASEAN Recover After Phnom Penh?

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I’ve published a piece over at The Diplomat on what ASEAN should do after its unprecedented ‘failure’ to issue a joint communique at the foreign minister’s meeting in Phnom Penh earlier this month. You can read the full thing here, but I’m also placing it below.

Soul Searching After Phnom Penh

Prashanth Parameswaran

Questions are still being asked about ASEAN’s unprecedented failure to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in its 45-year history at Phnom Penh earlier this month due to disagreements over the South China Sea. Regardless of what transpired at the meeting, it was an embarrassing moment for ASEAN and it raises questions about the ability of the organization to preserve its autonomy and centrality amidst great powers with the potential to dominate the region. If the grouping needs to do some “soul searching” over the next few months, as ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan put it, where should it start?

A logical start should be to try to make some progress on the South China Sea (SCS), since events at Phnom Penh illustrated that intra-ASEAN divisions on the issue can clearly tarnish the organization’s image.

As a first step, the four ASEAN claimants- the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia- should aim to clarify and codify their various South China Sea (SCS) claims in order to present a more unified front to China, as others have advised. Beijing has a proven record of exploiting ambiguity to make contradictory claims in the SCS, some of which have very little basis in international law.

If ASEAN countries make their claims explicit by codifying them in domestic legislation and multilateral frameworks in accordance with international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), they can sort out areas where disputes are particularly intractable and aspects where their opinions converge. The ball would then be in China’s court to clarify the basis for its own claims. As of now, ambiguity on the SCS only allows Beijing to make dubious claims while simultaneously exposing divisions within ASEAN. While ASEAN should continue efforts toward a code of conduct with China, there is no substitute for clarity on this question.

Secondly and more broadly, ASEAN as a grouping should redouble efforts to preserve its centrality and cohesion. The organization is receiving greater international scrutiny these days and it will continue to grapple with tough issues like the SCS in the future. Yet at the same time, much like Cambodia in 2012, the next few years will see ASEAN chaired by smaller or less-developed states (Brunei in 2013, Burma in 2014, Laos in 2016). While these countries are capable in their own right, they may not have the same capacity to drive regional integration or tackle contentious disputes as an Indonesia or Singapore. And while Southeast Asia has other great leaders, it will be difficult to sustain the decade of vigorous and dynamic leadership ASEAN has enjoyed under Secretary Generals Ong Keng Yeong (2004-2008) and Surin Pitsuwan (2008-2012).

Confronting this challenge will require greater efforts on various fronts. For one, ASEAN must move faster on its goal of creating an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by 2015, given that the bloc is behind on several aspects of that initiative. Greater regional cohesion creates a stronger collective identity among all members of the organization and strengthens economic linkages between them, both of which will incentivize putting ASEAN first. But if states choose to “keep to themselves,” as Pitsuwan told the Myanmar Times earlier this year that will only hold ASEAN back. Repeats of Phnom Penh could also be avoided by agreeing on innovative ways to express legitimate disagreements, which will require flexibility from both the chair and other ASEAN countries. And if future crises do occur, solving them may require ASEAN’s older members to demonstrate leadership and innovation, like Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa’s “shuttle diplomacy”’ that led to the organization’s six-point principle agreement on Friday.

Outside actors like the United States and China should continue to support a strong and united ASEAN. Despite its shortcomings, the organization remains the best hub around which to structure a regional architecture that will socialize actors into a set of acceptable norms and behaviors, and guide Asia towards a prosperous and peaceful future. Equally important, they should also resist short-sighted attempts to undermine the bloc’s unity or exploit its divisions, since they will only undermine this shared goal and leave themselves increasingly isolated in a more integrated world.



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