A Tale of Two Institutions: The ARF, ADMM-Plus and Security Regionalism in the Asia Pacific

By Tan, See Seng | Contemporary Southeast Asia, August 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

A Tale of Two Institutions: The ARF, ADMM-Plus and Security Regionalism in the Asia Pacific


Tan, See Seng, Contemporary Southeast Asia


The Asia-Pacific region is served by not one but two region-wide security arrangements, namely, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and its newer counterpart, the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus). Like their namesake and appointed custodian, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), both the ARF and ADMM-Plus lack the deeply institutionalized character of their Western counterparts and are not deemed as particularly effective mechanisms for conflict management and resolution. On the other hand, (and, importantly, regional aspirations aside), the institutional designs of the ARF and ADMM-Plus as principally mechanisms for dialogue and consultation essentially mean they are not created to facilitate ambitious forms of security cooperation, although theoretically they could evolve in the future and assume more complex and challenging responsibilities. (1)

This article will sketch and assess the respective evolutions of the ARF and the ADMM-Plus, and briefly speculate on their future trajectories. Crucially, the historical achievement of these institutions has been their ability to convene and regularize political dialogue and consultation between ASEAN member states and the world's great and regional powers. However, the post-Cold War strategic compact that enabled this exceptional development has considerably weakened in the face of growing rivalry among the Great Powers, which has led to pressures on ASEAN member countries to take sides and fomented disunity within ASEAN itself. For the two-decade period following the end of the Cold War, out-and-out rivalry had been delayed or deferred; first thanks to China's adherence to Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's "bide our time" strategy and its "charm offensive" towards Southeast Asia, and by America's preoccupation with the so-called "global war on terrorism". However, since around 2009, with China's rising assertiveness and the US "pivot" or rebalance to Asia, the region's institutions have threatened to become arenas for Great Power sparring, as happened at the ARF in 2010 over the issue of the South China Sea as a "core interest" for the Chinese, and again in 2014 over island reclamations and militarization in the contested Spratly Islands, and at the ADMM-Plus in 2015 over an aborted joint statement which, if issued, would have included mention of the South China Sea.

That said, where the Dickensian analogy of twin cities (or institutions, for our present purposes) in trouble arguably falters is in the highly successful multilateral military exercises conducted under ADMM-Plus auspices, which have hitherto engendered considerable attention and commitment from all eighteen member countries. But it is early days yet. Furthermore, while common concerns over North Korea's recalcitrance have brought China and the United States closer together, whether their apparent mutual goodwill will extend beyond their current alignment of interests--and the ramifications of such strategic congruence for Asia-Pacific security regionalism--remains to be seen.

ARF: A Bridge Too Far?

The ARF was established in 1994 to considerable fanfare and with the declared aim "to develop a more predictable and constructive pattern of relations for the Asia-Pacific region". (2) Its current membership stands at twenty-seven: the ten ASEAN members; the ten ASEAN dialogue partners (Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and America); one ASEAN observer (Papua New Guinea); as well as North Korea, Mongolia, Pakistan, Timor-Leste, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The ARF issued a concept paper in 1995 that laid out a three-stage roadmap on security cooperation that envisaged the institution evolving as a mechanism from confidence-building to preventive diplomacy and finally to conflict resolution (amended subsequently, at China's behest, to "elaboration of approaches to conflicts"). The concept paper also introduced two "baskets" of measures: the first comprising so-called low-hanging fruits readily harvestable; the second comprising more ambitious and challenging activities. …

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