New Asean Chief to Focus on South China Sea Security

JAKARTA, Jan 9, 2013- Indonesia—A soft-spoken career diplomat on Wednesday became the first Vietnamese representative to take the helm of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, saying he would follow the course set by his predecessors in steering the region toward maritime security in the South China Sea and formal economic integration in the course of his five-year term

Newly inaugurated Asean Secretary General Le Luong Minh of Vietnam, left, poses with Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, center, and the former secretary general, Surin Pitsuwan, during the handover ceremony in Jakarta on Wednesday. (EPA Photo)

Le Luong Minh, who has served as Vietnam's deputy foreign minister and representative to the United Nations, succeeds Thailand's Surin Pitsuwan, who as secretary-general faced unprecedented divisions among the 10 member countries in the past year over China's assertive claims over the South China Sea.

Vietnam and fellow Asean members the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia also have claims on the waters, which are rich in oil and gas and plied by much of the world's shipping. So does nonmember Taiwan.

Several members have welcomed the U.S. defense pivot to Asia to counter China's moves in the area. Others with close ties to Beijing, prominently Cambodia, have prevented the organization from reaching a required consensus on taking a stronger unified stance to curtail China, which prefers to deal with its rivals one-on-one.

"In the face of complicated developments on the South China Sea…Asean should speed up efforts toward an early start of negotiations with China with a view to achieving an early conclusion of a code of conduct on the South China Sea," Mr. Minh said.

He briefly took questions from reporters on the dispute. He declined to discuss a specific path forward but suggested that past efforts by Asean and others had laid "good groundwork for further work."

While Mr. Minh stressed that the maritime dispute remains a priority, the most important item on his agenda will be to continue to work on establishing a formal community of wide-ranging political, economic and social ties across Asean member states by the end of 2015.

The initiative includes introducing the Asean Economic Community, a regional bloc that will reduce trade and investment barriers in an area home to almost 10% of the world's population and an economy of about $2 trillion.

Mr. Minh, 60 years old, graduated from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and has worked in Vietnam's diplomatic arena since 1975, serving as deputy foreign minister from December 2008 until taking the Asean post. He was Vietnam's ambassador to the United Nations for seven years and chairman of the Security Council in July 2008 and October 2009.

In November, when Mr. Minh was approved by Asean leaders to succeed Mr. Pitsuwan, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said the new position "will be a challenge for Mr. Minh, especially when Asean is promoting community building and regional integration."

The Asean Secretariat, founded in Jakarta in 1975, rotates its top leadership position among member nations every five years. Vietnam joined the group in 1995.

The charismatic Mr. Pitsuwan told reporters that he would return home to, among other things, lecture on diplomacy. In his formal remarks, he painted a picture of an ascendant Asia and warned of the change accompanying the region's global rise.

"The next decade is going to be more challenging than the past decade," Mr. Pitsuwan said. "Superpowers are coming in. This is the center of gravity of the world. This is an improved center of the global community. "We cannot keep anybody out. We can only manage [the relationship] to help to sustain the strategic balance we would like to see here."

—Vu Trong Khanh in Hanoi
contributed to this article.