NAYPYIDAW — During this weekend’s 24th Asean Summit the hot topic was the South China Sea, where tensions have been raised in regional states’ territorial disputes with China.
Also on the agenda for the leaders of the 10 Asean countries was the plan for regional economic integration, an ambitious project known as the Asean Economic Community, which will come into force next year.
The Irrawaddy’s Kyaw Hsu Mon met with Aung Htoo, deputy director general of the Asean affairs department in Burma’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to discuss the challenges posed by Burma’s first chairmanship of Asean.
Question: What difficulties and challenges have the South China Sea disputes created for Burma as Asean chair?
Answer: As Asean chairman, we are standing with the member countries. But the issue is we have to consider both parties—China and the two Asean countries, Vietnam and the Philippines. At the same time, we’re following the Asean rules, so we’re standing in between these two parties. It’s difficult.
Q: Some foreign leaders did not appear to be paying close attention, perhaps being disrespectful to Burma as Asean chair. Do you agree?
A: It’s not like that. There is very good involvement from member countries. Even though we had a tough situation to negotiate with them for the Naypyidaw Declaration, they agreed despite those difficulties. The leaders always said that they support Burma.
Q: Although the president talks a lot about integration, and Asean presents itself as harmonious, many believe there is discord between the members. Is that the case?
A: The president wants more integration between Asean members in the future, and expects the upcoming 2015 Asean Economic Community to be stronger. Also, beyond 2015, there should be more unity between member countries, that’s why he frequently talks about that. You can see in the joint statement on the South China Sea disputes, we brought all the foreign ministers’ desires together and came up with an agreement.
Q: What benefits, politically and economically, has Burma got from being the chair of Asean?
A: Burma has received more confidence from among the Asean countries during this chairmanship period. Mutual trust is quite important. Beyond building trust, a lot of foreign direct investment will flow into the country.
A very significant benefit is that after the country has reformed, the number of international visitors has been significantly increasing. There were no more than 300,000 visitors per year before 2011, now it will reach more than 2 million this year.
Foreign direct investment in other sectors is also increasing annually. Early this year, when Asean foreign ministers met in Bagan, they all learned that Burma has a very long history and a developed culture. We are getting all the benefits from hosting Asean here.
Q: Will Timor-Leste [East Timor] become a member of Asean soon?
A: There is a negotiation committee to accept the Timor-Leste to become a member state. There are officials from the political, economic and social sectors who are now doing comprehensive studies on the country’s acceptance. Leaders agreed last January to accept Timor-Leste as a member state at the end of this year. They will invite officials from Timor-Leste to attend Asean process meetings.