Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Flexibility or Irrelevance: Ways Forward for the ARF

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Flexibility or Irrelevance: Ways Forward for the ARF

Article excerpt

The Evolving Security Environment

Whether "ripe for rivalry" or simply witnessing the ripening of divergent national viewpoints, the Asia-Pacific will undergo potentially dramatic and unpredictable developments in the coming decades. The litany of potential problems and flashpoints is by now familiar: uneven economic development across and within states; regime instability and pressures for political reform; full-fledged military confrontation on the Korean peninsula, punctuated by military probings and, more recently, missile or attempted satellite launches; clashing interests and occasional military fire over claims in the Spratlys; major arms purchases throughout Southeast Asia in a context of suspicion and unclear military intent; historical enmities unresolved, particularly in Northeast Asia; and the growing military might of a potential hegemon with unclear bounds on its strategic interests.(1)

After several years of gestation, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was formally launched in 1994 to deal explicitly with issues affecting regional security. The ARF was born in part as a rejection of a European model of security that is based on a combination of great-power politics and legalistic institutionalism. Instead, the ARF embraced the "ASEAN Way" of dealing with conflicts of interest - discussion and dialogue to seek out the matters acceptable to all involved parties. An extraordinary number of dialogues have commenced. Working groups have been convened on confidence-building measures (CBMs), preventive diplomacy, and conflict resolution, which also comprise the three stages through which the regional security dialogue is supposed to progress. Major statements of policy have been accepted on the issue of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Membership has expanded to include virtually all regional actors as well as the world's major powers and political groupings, reaching to Europe.

Yet there is an incongruity between the assumptions and processes of the ARF, on the one hand, and the nature of some of the security challenges facing the Asia-Pacific region, on the other. On the most fundamental level, the wide variety of threats to stability - in their origins, intensity, and likely maturation - decreases the likelihood that an essentially unitary approach to security can successfully manage all of them. Looking more closely at the kinds of hard decisions and choices that are necessary to solve some of these conflicts, one can conclude that identity-building by itself will not address such realities.

Failure to resolve emerging conflicts incurs two very serious risks for the ARF. First, it will appear irrelevant should it become bogged down in preliminary CBM discussions without ever tackling serious conflicts of interest or threatening behaviour. The progress that is made in identity-building will then mistakenly appear to be erroneous or even harmful. Secondly, the ARF could find itself overtaken by longer-term and irreversible trends, such as Chinese power projection or simply China's growing "presence", which the ARF chooses to sweep under the rug on a meeting-by-meeting and dialogue-by-dialogue basis.

In order to thrive, then, the "ASEAN Way" of unanimity, informality, and low-profile dialogue, and the "ARF Path" of moving sequentially from trust to conflict prevention and then conflict resolution must be transformed into a strategy for dealing with concrete problems in the near term. This will require breaking with the ARF's traditions of unanimity and consensus-building. It requires sub-regional and bilateral arrangements. It will necessitate the refocusing of energy away from CBMs and promises of future progress on preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution and towards specific problems requiring hard political choices and deadlines. In sum, the ARF would continue to perform long-term identity-, network-, and consensus-building, but it would actively sanction smaller groupings of states that would take the initiative on more pressing security challenges. …

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