Issues & Insights Vol. 19, WP7 - The ASEAN Regional Forum at 25: Moving Forward or Still Standing?

July 22, 2019

Executive Summary

The multinational ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) celebrates its golden anniversary this year. Since its inception in 1994, it has been instrumental in bringing together 27 countries and participants from Asia, Australasia, North America, and Europe – participants that have sometimes conflicting strategic and political interests – to collaborate on a common platform for dialogue and consultation. Generally speaking, its members have avoided direct conflict with one another despite overlapping territorial claims and other historic disputes. If it did not exist, attempts would be made to create it today, and these would likely prove difficult, if not impossible.

Few dispute that the ARF, through its deliberations and annual ministerials, has helped to build confidence among its diverse membership. By most standards of measurement, the ARF must be deemed a success. Unfortunately, if one uses the standard of measurement outlined by the ARF itself in its 1995 Concept Paper, it falls far short of its own self-professed goals.

The Concept Paper prescribed a “gradual evolutionary approach” to manage regional security challenges. It was to promote confidence building measures (CBMs) in the first stage, develop preventive diplomacy (PD) mechanisms in the second stage, and construct conflict resolution (CR) mechanisms in the third stage.

While engagement for mutual benefit has occurred in several important areas, the ARF has not been able to make much headway in the latter two core tasks assigned itself. Despite much effort, the ARF has not been able to proceed beyond the CBM stage. This report suggests some reasons for this. Similarly, the ARF has been able to accept very few of the recommendations of others, such as the non-governmental track two Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) and its own Experts and Eminent Persons Group (EEPG), that have charted a course forward toward PD/CR.

ARF member countries have in many instances sought to voluntarily resolve both inter-state as well as internal conflicts through outside mediation – the classic definition of preventive diplomacy – but this has always taken place outside the framework of the ARF. This report highlights a number of them in order to draw some lessons learned. It also examines the prior work of the EEPG and provides some alternative future courses of action in order to make its contribution more meaningful. The authors, as longtime members of the EEPG, seek to enhance its relevance and effectiveness by sustaining the practice of organizing Virtual Working Groups between annual meetings and through promoting closer engagement between the EEPs and other regional institutions.

Most importantly, this report proposes several options for the ARF to consider regarding pursuit of its PD/CR stated objective. One option is to continue pursuing the CBM/PD/CR agenda but with redoubled efforts to implement some of the recommendations that have already been submitted but that have not been implemented. If continued difficulties (which we identify primarily as a lack of political will) prevent the ARF from moving forward on the PD/CR agenda, a second option is for the ARF to consider shifting from emphasis on a preventive diplomacy/conflict resolution agenda to emphasis on a more inclusive security cooperation agenda. The shift should be portrayed as an advancement of the mission of the ARF after 25 years of constructive engagement and should be seamless because the ARF has already been engaged in many areas of security cooperation.

If the first option is chosen, the ARF should redouble its efforts to move down the path toward PD/CR, beginning with a serious review of the recommendations provided by CSCAP, the EEPG, and an ARF-funded 2008 PD Study and develop a timeline for near-, mid-, and long-term steps to accomplish this goal. The steps could include: the development of an early warning capability, better utilization of the EEPs and a clearer definition of their role, closer coordination between the EEPG and ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation (A-IPR), and transitioning from a “pace comfortable to all members on the basis of consensus” to “a pace comfortable to none” where full consensus is only required for the most sensitive issues. Many of these recommendations are spelled out in more detail in this report.

If instead the ARF decides to shift its emphasis to promoting more inclusive security cooperation, it should use the occasion of its 25th anniversary to adjust its mission to be “a forum for open dialogue and consultation on regional political and security issues, to discuss and reconcile the differing views between ARF participants in order to reduce the risk to security, and to promote cooperation in the diverse fields of comprehensive security.”  This will entail a small but significant and positive amendment to the stated mission of the ARF.

If this option is chosen, ARF ministers would recognize PD/CR as primarily the work of the countries of the region, as is the practice at present. It should, however, continue to monitor developments in the PD/CR field and provide all support and encouragement, as well as explore specific PD initiatives such as election monitoring and peacekeeping, as activities within the ambit of security cooperation.

Regardless of the path chosen, the ARF should recognize that preventive diplomacy is applicable to both inter-state as well as intra-state security conflicts and disputes, even while confirming that third party assistance to address internal conflicts will only be at the invitation of the state concerned.

Alternatively, the ARF ministers can elect to continue to pursue business as usual, paying lip service to the expanded PD/CR goals.  This would disappoint the founders, who noted in the original Concept Paper that, “if the ARF is to become, over time, a meaningful vehicle to enhance the peace and prosperity of the region, it will have to demonstrate that it is a relevant instrument to be used in the event that a crisis or problem emerges.”

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