The Multilateralist

ASEAN gets a new chief

ASEAN gets a new chief

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gets a new secretary general this month. Vietnam’s Le Luong Minh takes over leadership of the organization from Thailand’s Surin Pitsuwan, who served a five-year term.

The right to nominate secretaries-general rotates within the organization, and it was Vietnam’s turn to select the organization’s leader. In Minh, Hanoi has selected a diplomat with considerable experience in the multilateral realm. He served as Vietnam’s United Nations ambassador for seven years (during that time, Vietnam served a two-year stint on the Security Council). Minh has also been posted to Geneva, where he interacted with UN agencies headquartered there as well as the World Trade Organization.

Pitsuwan led ASEAN through a tumultous several years, which included heightened tension with China over the South China Sea and Myanmar’s political tranformation. Many of those reading the tea leaves anticipate a more restrained form of ASEAN diplomacy from the Vietnamese diplomat, particularly on the South China Sea. Via Voice of America:

Beijing is going through a once-every-decade leadership transition until March that observers are watching carefully.

Carl Thayer is professor of politics at the Australian Defense Force Academy.  He says a period of quiet diplomacy between ASEAN and China is most likely and most needed.

"This is not a time to go full steam ahead because of Chinese attitudes and the leadership transition…  Xi Jinping may be the General Secretary but he’s not yet assumed the Presidency…So, between now and then is not to challenge China and entrench it, but to wait out this period and then to see if a new leader and a new team in Beijing can be dealt with by ASEAN," explained Thayer. "So, it’s low profile on the South China Sea, not putting it away."

For an argument that Minh has big shoes to fill, see this article in the Jakarta Globe