16th ASEAN Regional Forum: Has It Gone Beyond Rhetoric?

08 Oct, 2009    ·   2979

Anushree Chakraborty weighs the accomplishments vs the oratory of the ARF

Twenty-seven countries across the Pacific Ocean gathered in Phuket, Thailand towards the end of July on the sideline of ASEAN Summit and the subsequent East Asia Summit. The week long event concluded with the annual ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting, the largest and indeed the only security dialogue forum running in the Asia-Pacific region. This year, the ARF participant countries prioritized three major security issues, namely, to encourage Myanmar to transition towards democratization; denuclearization of the Korean peninsula; and tackling terrorism.

As observed in the last 15 years, little has come out of the exhaustive dialogue drills conducted by ARF. Security issues continue to be debated, for instance, the Korean issue was discussed at the first ARF meeting in 1994 and still lies on the table. Neither Myanmar nor North Korea has succumbed to their ARF peer pressure. On the other hand, issues like terrorism bring no consensus among the diverse 27 countries. Therefore, has the 16th ARF curved out appropriate responses for meeting the challenges of the day or is it still contented with rhetoric alone?

16th ARF: Major Highlights

The post-Cold War period posited diverse security challenges in the Asia Pacific region. With the purpose of addressing new challenges, the ARF was created and since then it has considerably expanded its sphere of interaction thereby percolating everything that falls under the security fabric of the region. This was reflected in the 16th Forum meeting when the members touched upon all pertinent security challenges, such as Afghanistan, Middle East peace process, natural disaster management, pandemics, counter-terrorism and transnational crime.

Most ARF member countries consider an all out war between states improbable particularly in the backdrop of economic recession. However, tensions persist through issues such as the South China Sea dispute. At the meeting, ARF members discussed the subject evoking hope that upcoming meetings would finalize the guidelines on  implementation and eventually conclude the regional Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

The 16th ARF proceedings also observed the participation of Track II level in order to connect with the civil society groups. Interestingly, at 16, ARF shows maturity by shifting focus on global concerns such as Non-proliferation and Disarmament. However, one major hurdle faced during the proceeding, is a lack of consensus on which security issues should be addressed by ARF. The result is that, contentious issues are ignored and the final draft appears to be a compromise. This is similar to the case of Myanmar, where there were huge difference of opinion between ASEAN countries and the US on how to push an authoritarian country towards democratization.

India at the Forum

India’s participation in ARF was since 1996. Her multi polar world view is in tune with the ARF spirit of pluralism and common security thinking. India has been working closely on various security issues involving capacity-building programmes and information exchanges. Most significantly, since 2005 India is conducting Maritime Security Training Programme for ARF Member States.

This year, Minister of External Affairs, Shri S M Krishna made his maiden visit to ASEAN with the aim of extending India’s presence in the forum.  Given that India has being a victim of this scourge, for more than a decade now; it comes as no surprise that Shri Krishna raised the issue of terrorism, with the ARF members and urged them to take substantial measures. The event facilitated the Indian Minister for bilateral meetings with the representatives of China, Japan and Australia, thereby continuing the dialogue processes already in place. India’s participation at the 16th meet speaks for not just her increasing engagement in the region but also acknowledges her as an indispensable factor in the security and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region.

Going beyond Rhetoric

Now entering adolescence, the ARF has silenced its critics who label it a mere talk shop. This year’s  meeting suggests that ARF is looking forward to a bigger role in ensuring the future stability in the region. The ARF Vision Statement 2020 is a testimony to this end. Accordingly, the following developments came out of 23rd July ARF affair:

Firstly, ARF maintained ambivalence in its structure in order to accommodate diverse views and ideological stands. It deliberately kept an informal set up, so that small states such as Singapore and North Korea would not have qualm about being marginalized. Similarly, major powers such as China and the US, were not at risk of being contained. 

Secondly, at the meeting, ARF members emphasized information exchange and network building amongst themselves in order to ensure mutual confidence and transparency. The separate meeting for Defence ministers and military officials under the ARF banner was initiated. It is hoped that this will eventually alleviate the security dilemma inherited by the region.

Finally, from the constructivist viewpoint, ARF took significant step towards building a “security community” in its region.

In conclusion, despite the exhibited rhetoric, the 16th ARF Summit is not without success. It is conspicuous because of the renewed US interest as reflected in Ms. Hillary Clinton’s symbolic gesture of US ‘Back in Asia’. It marks the beginning of an epoch in US-ASEAN ties, thereby suggesting that a new security architecture is in the making.