Tuesday, December 10, 2013
- The two-year-old ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is an infant set-up by any standards, but South-east Asian governments are hoping it will grow into the key security framework the region has been eyeing in the post-Cold War era.
ASEAN is the Association of South-east Asian Nations, which adds Vietnam to its roster later this month. It joined the search for Asia’s own security structure only in the last few years, after the end of a superpower rivalry that saw U.S. and Russian military presence keeping regional disputes from becoming nasty.
No instant breakthroughs are expected when the 19-nation ARF — made up of ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore and other Asia-Pacific countries — meets for the second time on Aug. 1 in Brunei, host of this year’s annual ASEAN meetings.
For now, ARF’s value lies in being a yearly dialogue that fosters confidence among a group that includes once-bitter foes.
But foreign ministers of ARF countries are expected to discuss ticklish security issues, including the South China Sea disputes worrying much of Asia. Apart from ASEAN, ARF includes non-Asian nations like the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Russia.
Experts say ARF will soon have to show more bite if it is to be the main security vehicle for South-east Asia and the rest of Asia- Pacific — one able to settle a pressing regional concern like China’s southward march through the South China Sea.
Indeed, analysts say the timing of China’s missile tests near Taiwan indicates these were warnings not only to Taipei but also to ASEAN. The tests began last Friday and ended Wednesday, just a few days before ASEAN begins its Brunei meetings.
“ARF, to be a viable organisation, is soon to going to have to be able to address specific conflicts like the Spratly islands and potentially at a later part the Korean peninsula,” said Paul Evans, an Asia-Pacific security expert with University of Toronto who visited Manila recently.
In an interview, Evans said ARF’s development cannot happen at the Brunei meetings but that it would soon have to go beyond today’s mere exchanges of views. In fact, at a preparatory session for Brunei, ARF senior officials reached a “general understanding” of a three-stage road map for the future.
ARF began as a yearly meeting where officials talk security, but no joint communique is issued. Next, it would become a forum for preventive diplomacy and address incipient conflict. By its final stage, ARF would be a forum for conflict resolution.
“Whether we get to the dispute settlement stage depends on how we handle the first two stages,” says Philippine Foreign Undersecretary Rodolfo Severino.
But he adds that the main point is ARF members “agreed that it will evolve at a pace that all participants are comfortable with. Otherwise we will defeat the purpose of the forum”.
Going by the ASEAN way of consensus-building, ARF’s maturation process will not be fast. Already, some members like China disagree over the forum’s role. Beijing opposes the idea of ARF turning into an institution for dispute settlement. In May, it said it did not want the Spratlys raised in Brunei.
“ARF is a forum of a consultative nature. It is a venue for dialogue and exchange of views. It is not a body for negotiation or arbitration,” said Wang Yingfan of China’s foreign ministry.
Analysts say China is concerned that a powerful ARF could bind it to multilateral negotiations on the Spratlys, which flouts its policy of holding only bilateral talks with claimants.
At the same time ARF, being a meeting among governments, is the most official, visible tip of parallel discussions on regional security that take place in workshops hosted by Asian think tanks. Government officials often attend these in their private capacities and talk more freely on sensitive issues.
Taken together, ARF, informal talks and the series of bilateral talks between ASEAN countries and China and ASEAN-China consultations are becoming simultaneous ways of engaging China. But an added challenge for China’s neighbours is how to get China to sit at the table of multilateralism on the Spratlys.
Beijing claims some 80 percent of the South China Sea, though experts say it has yet to state the exact coordinates of where neighbours’ boundaries supposedly end. The Spratlys are also claimed wholly or partly by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei.
“The objective is not to isolate China, but to have such a strong consensus among others at the table, maybe even unanimity, that China will inevitably though reluctantly have to deal with this question as a multilateral problem despite its reservations and objections,” Evans said.
Pressure on China to talk multilaterally is already rising. Alarmed by China’s seizure in February of the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef in the Spratlys, ASEAN closed ranks in rare unity and asked Beijing to spell out the legal basis of its claim.
In March, ASEAN issued a statement on the Spratlys and in April brought up China’s conduct at ASEAN-China talks in Beijing. Said then Philippine Foreign Secretary Roberto Romulo: “At some point, we believe China has to be more explicit as to what its ancient claims are. Right now, they’re like a moving target.”
ASEAN is saying “there are certain types of behaviour we can’t countenance, including changing the status quo in the South China Sea”, Carolina Hernandez of the Institute of Strategic and Development Studies said.
ASEAN may be more assertive now also because informal workshops on the South China Sea, hosted by Indonesia since 1989, seem to have reached a plateau and are unlikely at this point to progress to official, governmental talks.
Still, there are positive signs. Recently, Beijing said it wants to approach the Spratlys issue on the basis of “international law”, including the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). South-east Asian diplomats are waiting for China to explain what this means exactly at next week’s ARF.
Despite calls to get tough with China, Evans says there is value in the Asian way of engaging Beijing even if it appears alternately to be the hostile, then the friendly neighbour.
This approach may work in ARF, Evans said. “The ASEAN experience is very useful– being soft at the outset, giving a great deal of concessions on the agenda, style and pace of discussions, but keep in mind constantly moving forward.”
China does not take kindly to threats or lectures, so Evans says the region may do better by ensuring that Beijing gets the message about the need for a multilateral approach to the Spratlys dispute from as many sources as possible.
Beijing may not like the message, but it still has to be raised because “China cannot be given a veto on this”, he said.
Strengthening ARF may take time, but then Asia is starting from scratch in drafting the rules of its regional security game. In the past, Asia’s security parametres had been shaped by outsiders, from European colonisers of centuries ago to Washington through the Cold War.
With no homegrown example to follow, a regional security mechanism is now being “invented”, Evans said and likened Asia’s quest for a security order to Europe’s after World War II.
Finally, a regional security framework may well be a key to sustaining South-east Asia’s growth in the future. After all, it was the security umbrella provided by political stability that allowed Asian economies to post record growth rates in the past decades.