This week ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan denied reports that he would return to Thailand to take over as secretary-general of the Democratic Party of Thailand, which was defeated in this month’s parliamentary election. Dr. Surin noted that he had another 18 months left in his term and he preferred to serve out the rest of that term.
Having the ASEAN Secretary General be subject to such speculation is not necessarily bad. It demonstrates the high political esteem Dr. Surin has in his native country, as he did serve as deputy prime minister and foreign minister. Returning to domestic politics from a regional or multilateral leadership post is also relatively common in Europe. Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s attempted return to French politics from the IMF is the most recent example, but there have been successful transitions, such as Romano Prodi’s return as Italian prime minister after serving as President of the European Commission.
Hypothetically if Dr. Surin were to return to Thai politics, the ASEAN Charter sets forth the replacement procedures. Article 11 states that the term is for five years, with Dr. Surin’s current term expiring at the end of 2012. Before the Charter, there was an instance of where an ASEAN Secretary General was replaced by another person of the same nationality (Umarjadi Notowijono replacing H.R. Dharsono, a fellow Indonesian) to serve out the remainder of the term. Based on this precedent, Dr. Surin could be replaced by another Thai national to serve out the remainder of his term.
A last-minute selection process to choose a Thai national for the remnant term would be disruptive to ASEAN. Given the upcoming 2015 AEC inception date, ASEAN would probably be better served by not adhering to this precedent and instead giving a full term to the next Secretary General. Article 11 states that the next nationality of the ASEAN Secretary General is determined based on alphabetical rotation, hence a Vietnamese would take over. A full term beginning in August 2011 would thus carry forward until July 2016.
In all likelihood then, the next Secretary General will be a Vietnamese national. Vietnam has a large talent pool of current and former officials of sufficient rank, English capability, and diplomatic experience. This week’s report should motivate Vietnam to accelerate contingency plans to have its candidate in place earlier rather than later. The Secretary General-designate may even have to start work on a full or limited basis even if Dr. Surin remains in place. For example, if the 2012 ASEAN chair Cambodia finds that it cannot work with Dr. Surin on the Preah Vihear dispute, a Vietnamese Secretary General-designate could take over his role.
I would recommend that Vietnam designate a candidate with strong experience in economic affairs, such as from negotiating Vietnam’s WTO accession, the ASEAN FTAs or the Trans Pacific Partnership. There will be strong desires in some quarters to pick a candidate with more security experience, given ASEAN and Vietnam’s central roles in the South China Sea/Spratly Islands dispute with China. However, I would pro-offer that simply having a Vietnamese national as ASEAN Secretary General will be sufficient to signify Vietnam’s importance to the dispute. The next ASEAN Secretary General will have to coordinate the final steps towards inception of the AEC in 2015, and that will require someone experienced in economic affairs. The good thing is that Vietnam has no shortage of qualified candidates. But the vetting process should start now.