Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

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

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

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

Article excerpt

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. …

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