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ASEAN chief confident of regional free trade by 2015
ASEAN Secretary General, Surin Pitsuwan, discusses free trade in the region and the ongoing territorial disputes between China and other Southeast Asian nations.

South East Asia has faced fewer more testing subjects in recent years than the array of increasingly bitter disputes with China over territory in the South China Sea.

The issue divided ASEAN when Foreign Minister met earlier this year and leaders will be hoping to paper over the cracks at the very least when they get together in Cambodia next month.

Current indications are they may accept Beijing's demand that the disputes must be resolved individually rather than multilaterally.

ASEAN's Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan has just visited Australia with progress on freer trade in the region also prominent on his agenda.
JIM MIDDLETON: Secretary General, thank you very much for your time.


JIM MIDDLETON: Free and open trade not just within ASEAN but also with six of your key regional partners, including Australia.




JIM MIDDLETON: Noble and ambitious as a goal but a very tight deadline. Are you going to make it?

SURIN PITSUWAN: Yes. I think the private sector can give you a better answer than me because I think they are benefiting a great deal.

The various multi national corporations coming to me from various capitals saying that we are benefiting from the progress that ASEAN is making, opening up, integrating and bringing down the barriers.

Now, we have five Free Trade Agreements with six countries because Australia and New Zealand come in together, but Australia and New Zealand and ASEAN have been able to establish a Free Trade Agreement that is rather comprehensive. We have dealt with the issues of goods, the issues of investment, the issues of services.

JIM MIDDLETON: Where are the sticking points, then, at this stage? Because you haven't got that long before the deadline.

SURIN PITSUWAN: Both of us realise that the problem is not in the rules and in the regulations. The problem is our private sector probably is not making use of it fully enough and we are trying to promote that.

JIM MIDDLETON: Why is that do you think?

SURIN PITSUWAN: I think lack of awareness. I think some reluctance that, you know, it's going to be a jump to go and invest in the landscape of ASEAN, for example, and the ASEAN countries are coming down here.

Thailand is investing rather big in Australia, in some of the icons of your country.

JIM MIDDLETON: Another subject, this has proved a difficult year for ASEAN.


JIM MIDDLETON: Will the leaders when they meet in Cambodia next month achieve what the Foreign Ministers failed to do in Cambodia earlier in the year - that is, achieve agreement on a code of conduct for the disputed territories in the South China Sea?

SURIN PITSUWAN: I think we are doing everything possible so that the issue is not achieving the code of conduct. The issue is to record the content of the discussion that we have discussed this very, very difficult issues of the South China Sea.

We could not agree to issue a joint communique. What should be in the elements of the joint communique?

JIM MIDDLETON: Was this a wake up call for ASEAN? Do you think people have learned lessons from all this?

SURIN PITSUWAN: In a way it is. I think ASEAN has learned that dealing with this kind of issues among ourselves is easier than dealing with external powers. And external powers- and external powers themselves, the rivalry will play itself out on the ASEAN stage.

ASEAN has to be more ready, it has to be more prepared, it has to enhance our capacity to deal with these contending, opposing forces and interests.

JIM MIDDLETON: Since the Foreign Ministers meeting, as I understand there's been considerable informal contact between ASEAN and China at quite high levels.

SURIN PITSUWAN: Yes, you have done your homework.



JIM MIDDLETON: At quite high levels.


JIM MIDDLETON: Is that showing any signs of a more accommodating view on the part of the Chinese?

JIM MIDDLETON: I think so. In the end, everybody, big and small, realise that what happened was counter-productive, that we must be able to send the right signal to the global community, that we have differences but we can manage our differences in a peaceful way, that we'll resort to ways and means that would not allow the issue to spill out into the open.

JIM MIDDLETON: Cambodia is this year's ASEAN chair.


JIM MIDDLETON: One of ASEAN's foundation principles is non-interference in each other's affairs.


JIM MIDDLETON: Does it worry you at all that China, which not a member of ASEAN, seems to be interfering in Cambodia to try influence the way in which it actually manages the chairmanship of this august institution?

SURIN PITSUWAN: Well, I think ASEAN is an open house. ASEAN receives a lot of signals, a lot of communications, a lot of sometimes pressure on to us. We have to learn to balance that. As I said, we have to learn that we need to strengthen our forum more and enhance our ability more to deal with these kinds of things.

This will not be the last. There will be others.

JIM MIDDLETON: But it is a real test if you cannot deal with this issue over, as you pointed out, what is a major trading route - important not just to the region but increasingly to the world - it does suggest that ASEAN has not lived up to its promise.

SURIN PITSUWAN: I think if you call it a wake up call but I think a better term would be a warning that ASEAN will need to do its homework more.

The fact that Australia is being able to benefit from the growth and the dynamic of East Asia is because of the semblance of stability and security.

So Australia has a role to play and I've been encouraging your leaders here that let's explore together what is appropriate way forward.

JIM MIDDLETON: Do you think that's a real possibility, that there could be agreement on a joint development area for this very important area of sea?

SURIN PITSUWAN: It is not out of imagination because they have explored these things before. Let us calm down and go back and try to understand the opportunities and the potential that we can work on these issues.

The territorial issue is going to take time to decide and eventually it will have to be between the bilateral claims and claimants and counterclaimants. We...

JIM MIDDLETON: Within a bilateral framework, within a multilateral framework, I should say?

SURIN PITSUWAN: We can discuss about it. We certainly can offer a forum or a stage or process, such as ASEAN is doing on this code of conduct that we are going through among ourselves and with China.

JIM MIDDLETON: Secretary General, thank you very much. It has been a pleasure talking to you.
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