Writing sample

Flexible engagement

(check against delivery)
Speech by H.E. Dr. Surin Pitsuwan
Minister of Foreign Affairs of Thailand
at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand
11 August 1998 

Thank you, Philippe, for that generous introduction.  I’m pleased to see so many friends in the audience, journalists and non-journalists.  I know you must have many questions about what happened at the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting.  I understand there was even one press report saying that I was ganged up on – though the exact verb used was rather more graphic and off-color.

That report, of course, was greatly exaggerated.  It was in fact a memorable and not unpleasant experience.  And it went according to our expectations.  I feel extremely fortunate to have benefited from the frank exchange of views on this topic with my ASEAN colleagues.

Still, I sensed that the Thai proposal was subject to a lot of different interpretations, and as a result it was disparaged by some and applauded by others.  The truth, as it so often is, lies somewhere in between.  Today I’d like to share with you some thoughts on why we made the proposal and what I think the issue is really about.  I’ll try to be brief so that I’ll have more time for your questions.

Thailand’s Response to the Economic Crisis

As we all know, a lot has happened these past twelve months – expectations overturned, dreams dashed, challenges magnified.  The financial crisis, which began in Thailand and is now entering its second year, has spread havoc throughout East Asia, with recovery still over the horizon.  In spite of our best efforts and the support of the biggest international financial institutions, it looks like we may be in for a long, uncomfortable ride.

In Thailand, the crisis has galvanized society as never before.  It has shocked the Thai people into some serious soul-searching.  More people than ever are asking what Thailand and Thai-ness are about.  More people than ever are asking where our nation should be heading.

These questions, you will remember, were not widely asked during our days of go-go growth.  That they are being asked now is a hopeful sign, for they move us to examine the basic assumptions of our society, of the dreams and goals we have set for ourselves.  That Thai society is capable of such introspection suggests that we are not rigidly set in our ways but retain the resilience that has allowed our nation to survive over the centuries.

So in this sense the economic crisis has been a boon.  It has challenged us to get to know ourselves better.  It has given us the necessary motivation to change from within, to adapt to a world where the forces of the market and technology rule.

But how do we adapt?  What kind of changes are needed?  For Thailand, the answer is to become more open, politically and economically, more in tune with the rest of the world.  We must set our sights on achieving the same standards as any world-class player.

At the same time, this does not mean losing sight of our uniqueness, our identity.  Rather, we must be ever more responsive to the needs, hopes and aspirations of our people, for in nurturing and allowing their potential to blossom to the fullest extent can we hope to compete on the world stage.

This line of thinking is evident in the growing calls for good governance and the emergence of a civil society in Thailand.  And it is this same line of thinking that helped shape our position on the future direction of ASEAN.

ASEAN Vision 2020

Thailand has always regarded ASEAN as the main pillar of our foreign policy.  Until its 30th anniversary, ASEAN was a shining example of regional cooperation.  It had successfully weathered regional security challenges with aplomb and style.  It had embarked on an ambitious course of regional economic integration.  It was well on its way to fulfilling its founders’ dreams of expanding to include all ten countries of Southeast Asia.

With the region’s major challenges all but overcome and the crisis still waiting in the wings, ASEAN agreed to chart a roadmap for the road ahead.  This resulted in the ASEAN Vision 2020 statement – a mission statement that set forth a common vision of what the grouping should look like some 23 years down the road.  This document went through several drafts and was finally endorsed by the leaders of ASEAN last year.  To achieve the vision, it was agreed that action plans would be drawn up at regular intervals to serve as blueprints.

To the credit of ASEAN’s far-sighted leadership, the ASEAN Vision 2020 Statement foresees an ASEAN that will play a much more active role than ever before in shaping the political, economic and social agenda of the region.  The preamble states that, and I quote, "ASEAN shall have, by the year 2020, established a peaceful and stable Southeast Asia where each nation is at peace with itself and where the causes of conflict have been eliminated, through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law and through the strengthening of national and regional resilience."

The operative verb in this declaration is "established."  This is a very active verb.  ASEAN’s job will not be merely to oversee, or to supervise, or to facilitate, but to establish a peaceful and stable Southeast Asia where certain conditions prevail.  Accuse me of playing with words, if you will, but I believe that words contain ideas and it is ideas that have power to change the world.

So if I understand this statement correctly, it means that ASEAN will see to it that each member nation is at peace not only with its neighbors but with itself.  ASEAN will also act to ensure respect for justice and the rule of law.  Furthermore, ASEAN will strengthen not only regional resilience but also national resilience.  The essence of what we want to accomplish is nothing less than the creation of a community of Southeast Asian nations.  These noble purposes that will certainly strengthen ASEAN’s relevance in the years ahead.  At the same time, the 2020 Vision Statement clearly requires that ASEAN take a more active interest in the domestic affairs of its members – for otherwise how can it ensure that a member nation is at peace with itself, have respect for justice and the rule of law, and possess national resilience?

ASEAN’s Formula for Success

This vision is a remarkable departure point for ASEAN.  For 30 years, ASEAN has been nothing if not meticulous in its application of the principle of non-interference.  And that was as it should be.  Southeast Asia before ASEAN was a region divided by mutual suspicion and conflict.  ASEAN brought together these countries which had been until then bound by geographical and historical circumstances and little else.  Strict adherence to non-interference was necessary to overcome the culture of suspicion and distrust that had long pervaded the region.

And the formula worked.  That is, up until last year, ASEAN’s thirtieth anniversary.  What was to have been ASEAN’s crowning moment of glory was instead remembered for a series of events that exposed the weaknesses in the organization’s armor.  Political turmoil broke out in Cambodia, throwing off its scheduled admission into ASEAN and sending ASEAN ministers scurrying to come up with a solution.  Massive forest fires broke out in Indonesia, sending a pall of haze over much of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.  A financial crisis broke out in Thailand, sending stock markets and currencies tumbling throughout much of East Asia, while exposing flaws in the Asian development model.

These crises provoke the question: What could we have done better that might have prevented or at least contained these problems?

If one thing stood out, it was the reticence and weakness of ASEAN’s response.  We are simply not accustomed to dealing with problems that fall within the jurisdiction of one country but which have ramifications for the rest of the region.  When such problems arise, we hesitate to counsel the affected country lest that be construed as an act of interference, a breach of sovereignty.  Somehow our sensitivity over interference had bred a culture of reticence that hobbles us when we can least afford it.

Let me be very clear that the issue at stake is not about interference in the internal affairs of member states.  Thailand continues to abide by the principle of non-interference as enshrined in the United Nations charter, which seeks to protect the sovereignty and political independence of States as well as the freedom of their peoples.

In calling for greater flexibility in the way ASEAN responds to new challenges, we are not seeking to impose our views on others.  Nor are we seeking to propitiate or appease anyone.

What we are doing is an extension of our approach to strengthen Thai society by making it more open and responsive to the demands of the new global era.  We believe that if we are to strengthen ASEAN, it should become a community of open and vibrant societies – a view our ASEAN fellows also share, as reflected in the Vision 2020 statement.

So what Thailand’s effort is about is building an ASEAN that is mature enough to offer advice to its members and have it taken in a constructive, friendly spirit.  It is about building an ASEAN that is effective in managing not just regional and transnational challenges, but also regional challenges that emanate from within member states.  It is about making ASEAN robust enough to withstand the shocks that come with an ever more complex international system.

The idea for ASEAN to take a more active interest in domestic issues with regional implications, which I called flexible engagement, has stirred much debate – both pro and con – for which I am grateful.

However, there seems to have been some confusion over just what the concept meant.  Some took it to be a replacement for ASEAN’s policy of constructive engagement towards Myanmar, which has now become part of ASEAN.  Others thought it meant a ticket to no-holds-barred criticism among ASEAN members, conjuring up images of a rowdy bunch of ASEAN statesmen constantly at one another’s throats in full public view.  Still others have expressed fears that the idea might lead to the eventual breakup of ASEAN.

I admit the early labels attached to the concept may have contributed to the confusion, so let me take this opportunity to set things straight.

First of all, the concept – flexible engagement, enhanced interaction, call it what you will, let us not be slaves to semantics – is not directed at any country in particular.  It is meant to encourage ASEAN to play a more pro-active role on issues that have the potential to affect the region as a whole, whether those issues are international, regional or domestic.  For example, if a dialogue partner pursues economic policies that ASEAN perceives as detrimental to its interests, it should be within its rights to call for changes in that policy, as it has been doing with Japan.  Or if a certain member country complicates ASEAN’s relations with its dialogue partners, ASEAN should similarly have the right to consult with the country concerned on how to resolve the situation in a manner satisfactory to all.  We should not let this culture of reticence hold us back from being true to ourselves.

Which brings me to my second point: This enhanced interaction does not have to be conducted in public.  Discretion and courtesy are still reliable rules to live by, whether in ASEAN or any other diplomatic forum.  A more open ASEAN need not lead to public shouting matches.  Differences of opinion can be expressed in a respectful and civil manner.  My proposal for frank exchanges of opinion and advice should not be taken to mean an end to civility.

My third point is that I have never envisioned an ASEAN where every domestic issue can be discussed and picked apart.  It is up to ASEAN to decide together which issues are likely to have regional implications and set priorities accordingly.  Domestic issues that are unlikely to affect the peace and stability of the region will therefore remain off-limits.  To take the examples I cited earlier, domestic issues with regional implications could include the prevention and management of large-scale forest fires, and the management of regional capital flows.  The Manila Framework is an example of such an effort.  Its slow progress, however, is also an example of how non-interference can be both ASEAN’s strength and its weakness.

My fourth point is directed towards those who contend that flexible engagement or enhanced interaction would break up ASEAN.  All I can say is that if ASEAN does not keep up with the changing times, it risks a fate worse than breaking up, and that is dwindling into irrelevance.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In the past 30 odd years, the ASEAN members have never been so closely linked with one another or to the international system as they are at present.  Now that we have vowed to chart our destinies together, now that we are integrated into the world economy and seeking greater integration within the region, we must learn to manage our growing interdependence.  The idea I proposed is but one way of doing so.

Like all worthwhile ideas, this one has taken on a life of its own.  I am sure it will continue to be reshaped and transformed – and perhaps relabeled – every time someone discusses it.

Some have referred to my proposal as a doctrine.  I would not go so far myself.  All I could do – all anyone could do – is to plant the seed of an idea.  Whether the seed takes root or not is another matter entirely, dependent as it is on soil and climate conditions, which are beyond the planter’s control.  Likewise, any change in ASEAN would have to have the support of ASEAN as a whole, rather than be the effort of any one member.  Perhaps the idea will gnaw away at the edges of our thinking about the future of ASEAN, perhaps it will have no effect at all in the long run.  Whatever the outcome may be, it is out there in the open.  If it is an idea whose time has not come, then let it simmer and brew some more in our minds.  And let us be grateful that its detractors have never accused it of being an idea whose time has passed. 

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