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The ASEAN Regional Forum and its continued relevance: Barry Desker, Sarah Teo Li Shan and Dylan Loh Ming Hui discuss the performance and prospects of an important ASEAN process.

The ASEAN Regional Forum plays an important role in helping create a more predictable and stable pattern of relationships between major powers and South-east Asia. Established in 1994, and now boasting a membership of 27 states, it has the objective of facilitating open dialogue and constructive discussions on political and security issues that were of concern to all member states, as well as a contribution to confidence-building and preventive diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region. But to continue to be relevant the ARF needs to transform itself into a problem-solving institution. It should initiate concrete and practical activities and programmes to strengthen regional co-operative security.

The ASEAN Regional Forum emerged in a post-Cold War security environment shaped by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the bi-polar international structure, as well as the reduced military presence of the United States in South-east Asia. Amid the sense of uncertainty over the strategic future of a subregion comprising small and then-weak states, the ARF was established as a process to create a more predictable and stable pattern of relationships between major powers and South-east Asia. (1)

The chairman's statement of the inaugural ARF in July 1994 declared the objectives of the forum to be the facilitation of open dialogue and constructive discussions on political and security issues that were of concern to all member states, as well as a contribution to confidence-building and preventive diplomacy in the Asia--Pacific region. (2) Implicit in this conceptualisation was the recognition that regional issues required the engagement of extra-regional countries--in particular the great powers--in regional affairs. (3) Today, the ARF boasts an inclusive membership of 27 states (4) with more expressing their interest to join the organisation.

Over the two decades since its formation, the ARF has received much flak for its perceived lack of achievements. Along with other ASEAN-led regional groupings, the ARF is viewed as a Talk shop' with little substance and an inability to implement policy deliverables. Despite these criticisms, we would point out that the ARF remains relevant as the region tries to grapple and make sense of the evolving geo-political dynamics. To maximise its utility and effectiveness amid the ever-growing 'alphabet soup' of regional institutions, however, it is perhaps time for the ARF to consider new ways to manage regional security challenges.

Alphabet soup

It is worth bearing in mind that the ARF was conceived as a process, not an institution. It focused on building mutual trust and confidence and sought to develop norms through confidence-building measures. The ARF introduced a new norm into the ASEAN process of co-operative security, which emphasised inclusiveness through the promotion of dialogue among both likeminded and non-likeminded states. Indeed, the ARF deliberately sought the participation of the major powers at well as mid-sized powers such as Australia, South Korea and India, which could have a significant impact on regional developments. The focus was on inclusiveness, bringing in participants with an interest in broader Asian issues that had traditionally been excluded from the consultative processes initiated by ASEAN in its Post-Ministerial Conference dialogues with major Western states and China.

Much criticism of the ARF stems from the perceived ineffectiveness of the ASEAN Way. Originally used by policy-makers to describe the tendency for ASEAN to adopt a lowest common denominator approach when negotiating ASEAN treaties and agreements, it is now a term used in academic and even policy circles to describe ASEAN's unique approach to regional cooperation. The ASEAN Way encapsulates several behavioural norms adhered to by the ASEAN member states, such as respect for sovereignty, non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states and the non-use of force--norms which members of ARF were obliged to follow as well. At the same time, to manage the diverse perceptions and outlooks of member states, the ASEAN Way also refers to a multilateral process which is built on informal consultations, consensus and pragmatism. (5)

Because ASEAN centrality is a core element driving the ARF process, the ASEAN Way has characterised procedures and cooperation in the latter forum. ASEAN's insistence on adhering to the ASEAN Way in regional security has been highlighted by some as a challenge to effective co-operation. The stress on consensus decision-making, noted in a recent commentary as resulting in a conservative and lowest common-denominator approach, (6) has also led some extra-regional powers to dismiss the ARF as a mere 'talk shop' with no power to implement and enforce decisions. This is seen particularly in the inability of the ARF to progress towards preventive diplomacy, much less conflict resolution, in what is supposed to be an evolutionary three-stage process starting from confidence-building. An oft-cited example of the ARF's ineffectiveness is the on-going tension in the South China Sea.

Unclear mandate

Moreover, with the establishment of the leaders-led East Asia Summit, as well as the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting and its plus mechanism, the mandate of the ARF seems to be less clear. The EAS was originally conceived as a dialogue platform for participating states on common strategic, political and economic issues, while the ADMM+ fosters dialogue and co-operation among the defence and security establishments of regional countries. Clearly, the ARF's scope to some extent overlaps with that of the EAS and the ADMM+, giving credence to claims that there are more institutions and meetings in the Asia-Pacific region than are necessary.

Despite these criticisms, the ARF continues to be relevant in the regional security architecture in light of the current geo-political climate. Revisiting the formative elements and objectives of the ARF, the forum has proven itself useful in three broad ways. * Engagement of major powers in the ARF. It is hard to deny that the ARF has been successful in engaging major powers of the region. Both the dominant power, the United States, and the rising power, China, are in the ARF and support the forum. For China, participation in the forum is important as it seeks to dispel fears of its hegemonic intent and the ARF allows Beijing to further deepen and influence the region. To the United States, the ARF presents itself as an opportunity to bring together three of its key allies--the Philippines, Japan and South Korea--into a cooperative framework. Indeed, the ARF is all the more important given that South Korea's President Park Geun-hye has stated repeatedly that she would not hold a summit with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as long as Tokyo does not show sufficient remorse and contrition for its wartime past.

From ASEAN's and Singapore's perspective, the ARF is valuable because it allows ASEAN countries to engage major powers, socialise them to ASEAN norms and keep them interested in ASEAN's prosperity and security. Bilahari Kausikan, Singapore's former permanent secretary of foreign affairs, noted that multilateral forums (that involve major power participation) will be successful only if they are not too successful. He has a point. Ultimately, the big players in the region will take care of their national interests first before anything else--to think otherwise is to engage in wishful thinking.

Loose institution

By virtue of its makeup, the ARF does not legally bind or restrict participants; it is a rather 'loose' institution. It does not have a formal secretariat and it only has an ARF unit within the ASEAN Secretariat supporting it. This 'looseness' makes it extremely low-risk for major powers to be involved in, which, in turn, ensures their continued interest and engagement. If the United States or China starts feeling that its flexibility--in the fullest sense of the word--is conscribed, it would most definitely not be enamoured with the ARF.

Some critics, as noted above, label the ARF as a 'talk shop' but in some sense there is nothing wrong with talking and dialoguing. It is with this emphasis on talking and discussing that the major powers are socialised into the norms of the region which we hold dear. In that respect, socialising China and the United States into being more 'consensus seeking' and consultative represents an achievement in itself.

* Confidence-building measures in the ARF. Confidence-building measures are necessary in a region where mutual distrust and suspicions of others' strategic intentions exist. Several states, for example, are wary of China's rise and/or the US military presence. Inter-state relations, such as between Japan and South Korea or Thailand and Cambodia, are also characterised by tensions. Rodolfo Severino, former secretary-general of ASEAN, highlighted the fact that the ARF pursues confidence-building in three ways:

** defining and clarifying positions on regional and global issues

** extending the ASEAN Way to co-operative processes for the wider Asia--Pacific region and

** implementing initiatives that promote transparency, build relations and create shared interests. (7)

Important platform

Indeed, such confidence-building measures have helped to build comfort levels and establish a conducive atmosphere for security co-operation, or at the very least for discussions of sensitive regional issues. (8) While the ARF has admittedly not resolved any disputes, it has provided a platform to facilitate the management and reduction of tensions in the Asia-Pacific region. Its most useful role has been in the development of mutual trust and confidence. As noted several times, the ARF provides an alternative for bilateral and plurilateral informal exchanges within the more formal setting---a premium in the current diplomatic landscape. The practice has been for ministers attending ARF meetings to consult with their counterparts on a bilateral basis as well as in small groups, in addition to the formal exchanges at the ARF, and this has proven useful in building mutual understanding, trust and personal friendships among the elites of the various countries.

* Interactions at Track II and impact of Track III levels. Paralleling the official annual ARF summit is the Senior Officials Meeting, which forms the spine and lays the groundwork for the actual summit. Below this level is the unofficial, mainly academic, Track II meeting. This manifests itself through the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific. CSCAP was officially recognised in the chairman's statement at the 10th ARF ministerial meeting, in which it was noted that the

   Ministers stressed the importance of strong linkages between Track
   I (official) and Track II (non-governmental) activities. In this
   regard, they took note of the ongoing discussions on this issue
   based on Canada's concept paper 'Strengthening Linkages between
   Track I and Track II in the ARF Context'. The Ministers noted the
   conclusions of the Track II Workshop on Counter-Terrorism organized
   by the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies of Singapore and
   the Council on Security Cooperation in the Asia--Pacific--Canada
   (CSCAP Canada) in Vientiane on 25 March 2003. They agreed that
   efforts should continue to enhance Track I and Track II
   interaction, as recommended in the 2002 BruneiDarussalam
   Stocktaking Paper endorsed by the Ministers. (9)

Interactic process

Additionally, CSCAP's study groups' discussion memoranda are always sent to the ARF Unit and the ARF Unit will, usually, send a senior official to be present at the biannual Steering Committee meetings of CSCAP. This interactive process has proven very useful as the Track II circuit is often used to discuss and float ideas on more 'sensitive' issues that could not be viably discussed at the Track I level. It is also at this Track II level that positions that the different countries hold on different issues are made clearer--making the official meets much smoother and manageable. One innovation that could be used more effectively by the ARF is the ARF Experts and Eminent Persons (EEPs) Group, whose members were nominated by the ARF member states but are expected to provide inputs as experts and eminent persons going beyond the current positions taken by the ARF. The EEPs meet annually and discuss a range of issues. One significant initiative was the involvement of the EEPs as election monitors in the East Timor parliamentary elections.

In a regional political landscape that is ever more contested, the role of Track III cannot be ignored. Regional co-operative networks increasingly encompass non-government organisations. These include trade unions, environmental groups, democracy activists, urban activists and religious organisations which have developed relationships covering the ASEAN and Asia-Pacific regions. In November 2000, an ASEAN Peoples' Assembly was convened for the first time in Batam, Indonesia. These Track III processes will be increasingly significant in the Asia--Pacific region, especially in debates on human security issues. An example of how such non-governmental organisations can shape the global and regional agenda occurred with the adoption by the United Nations of the convention against land mines. The ARF will have to respond to new issues on the security agenda that will be advocated by such non-governmental organisations.

Ensuring relevance

Since the inaugural ARF meeting, regional security co-operation has evolved within a framework that is increasingly complex and multi-layered. The emergence of new institutions, such as the EAS and ADMM+, has contributed to the burgeoning layers of the regional security architecture. These overlaps, however, need not necessarily be seen in a bad light. Rather, the relative peace and prosperity the region has enjoyed can be attributed to these multiple 'webs' of networks and institutions that engage the interests of regional stakeholders. Moreover, the relatively loose and informal structure of the regional security architecture ensures that non-major powers, such as Singapore and New Zealand, can still exert a degree of influence in the affairs of the region.

That said, it is also crucial that the ARF does not fade into irrelevance in light of the growing number of meetings and forums that ASEAN initiates. One way to ensure this is perhaps to work at conflict management/prevention through, conceivably, the disputes in the East and South China Seas.

Given that all the claimant states in the both seas are members of the ARF, it would be a positive step for the ARF to develop a set of conflict management and prevention mechanisms. This is not meant to replace the code of conduct for the South China Sea that ASEAN is co-drafting with China. There is no doubt, however, that talks on the code of conduct have taken a very long time and look likely not be completed anytime soon. A less comprehensive, more general and briefer (much watered down even) conflict prevention mechanism could be concluded that would, at the very least, make some progress on ensuring transparency of actions and stabilising norms. Effectively addressing tensions arising from two of the region's flashpoints would allow the ARF (and ASEAN) to respond to its critics while at the same time reinforce its usefulness in regional security.

Bolder approach

An even bolder approach would result in initiatives on ARF organisational issues aimed at strengthening the ARF while admittedly raising some of the problems discussed earlier. First, as far as confidence-and security-building and preventive diplomacy are concerned, the ARF needs to transform itself into a problem-solving institution. The ARF should initiate concrete and practical activities and programmes that would strengthen co-operative security in the Asia-Pacific region instead of continuing as a forum exchanging views and perspectives. While attempting to develop common understandings and agreed positions on regional security issues among member countries, the ARF should add substance to the forms of co-operation. Meetings at the Inter-Sessional Group level, for instance, should focus on critical themes and particular issues. Thematic discussions would set the agenda for regional security co-operation. This initiative could not be promoted effectively unless conflict resolution mechanisms are developed. The ARF needs to consider various ways to resolve conflicts impacting security and prosperity of the region. Issues like how to implement the enhanced role of the ARF chair, and how to deploy the EEPs should be on the table. Ultimately, the resilience of the ARF will be strengthened if it goes beyond an exchange-of-views forum towards a problem-solving system.

Secondly, whilst the ARF meetings should be held in an ASEAN country, the co-chair of the ARF discussions could be a non-ASEAN member or an external ARF member. This initiative would extend one of the existing principles. Meetings of the Inter-Sessional Group are being co-chaired by an external member. The effect will be not only to lock in the participation of external powers but also to give them a bigger stake in the ARF process. Ensuring the continued involvement of external powers, especially the United States and China, is vital to peace and security of the region, even if their leaderships and foreign policies may turn unpredictable as a consequence of domestic politics and electoral campaigns.

Thirdly, the establishment of an ARF secretariat is necessary. Any strategy to energise the ARF requires the setting up of a dedicated secretariat. In fact, a first step has already been taken, with the establishment of an ARF Unit within the ASEAN Secretariat to assist the chairman. The ARF Unit, among others, services ARF meetings, updates the ARF Register of Confidence Building Measures, while serving as a repository of ARF documents. As the ARF embarks on concrete co-operation in the Asia-Pacific region, it is essential to get an autonomous secretariat staffed by officials from its member states that could handle security issues impacting the region. Such a secretariat could be co-located with the ASEAN Secretariat or alternatively with the APEC Secretariat. Co-location with the APEC Secretariat will encourage an increasingly symbiotic relationship between these two key institutions for co-operative regional security and regional economic integration. As part of the process of committing the external ARF members to the ARF process, the secretariat could be chaired by an ASEAN member with a non-ASEAN member as deputy secretary-general, each on two-year terms. To facilitate a build-up in capacity, ARF members could be encouraged to second staff to the ARF Secretariat in the initial years.


(1.) Barry Desker, 'The Future of the ASEAN Regional Forum', IDSS Commentaries, no 2 (Singapore, 2001); Tan See Seng, Ralf Emmers, Mely Caballero-Anthony and Barry Desker, 'A New Agenda for the ASEAN Regional Forum', RSIS Monograph, no 4 (Singapore, 2002).

(2.) ASEAN Secretariat, About the ASEAN Regional Forum', ASEAN Regional Forum (2011) (

(3.) Desker, 'The Future of the ASEAN Regional Forum', op cit.

(4.) Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Canada, China, North Korea, East Timor, European Union, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, South Korea, Russia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, United States and Vietnam.

(5.) Amitav Acharya, 'Ideas, identity, and institution-building: from the "ASEAN way" to the "Asia--Pacific way"?', The Pacific Review, vol 10, no 3 (1997), p.329.

(6.) Barry Desker, 'ASEAN Integration Remains an Illusion', RSIS Commentary, no 46 (Singapore, 2015).

(7.) Rodolfo Severino, The ASEAN Regional Forum (Singapore, 2009), pp.33-4.

(8.) Desker, 'The Future of the ASEAN Regional Forum', op cit.

(9.) ASEAN, 'Chairman's Statement from the 10th ARF Ministerial Meeting' (Phnom Penh, 2003).
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Author:Desker, Barry; Shan, Sarah Teo Li; Hui, Dylan Loh Ming
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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