At 25 this year, the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) is at a crossroads. It can continue along the path of striving to become a vehicle for conflict resolution, where it has not been able to progress much. Or it can transform itself into a platform for promoting the comprehensive security of the countries in Asia-Pacific, where it can achieve far more. It can do the latter without giving up on the former.
When it was established in 1994, the ARF chose to develop itself into a vehicle for conflict resolution by adopting a three-stage mission to manage regional tensions and conflicts that begins with confidence building (CB), proceeds to preventive diplomacy (PD) and culminates in conflict resolution (CR) — or in general PD in short.
A quarter century later, however, the ARF has not moved beyond the CB stage despite action plans and sustained efforts to enhance its capacity to conduct PD. The ARF Chair, the Friends of the ARF Chair and Asean secretary-general have not been mobilised for any good offices role or address any dispute or conflict. The ARF unit in the Asean Secretariat has not been strengthened to enable support for PD. The proposed regional risk reduction centre and early warning facility have not materialised.
Indeed, trust and confidence have declined in parts of the region. Rising geopolitical tensions have heightened strained relations between the major players such as China and the US, and Russia and the US. The South China Sea has become more militarised and navigation is contested by rival navies. The Korean peninsula issue remains unresolved. And tellingly, no party has referred any dispute or conflict to the ARF.
Pressing a conflict resolution function upon the ARF is understandable if the region would have been without such capacity absent it. The reality, however, is that plenty of conflict management and resolution has occurred without any recourse to the ARF. Examples include the Sipadan and Ligitan dispute, the Batu Puteh/Pedra Branca dispute and the conflicts in Aceh and southern Philippines.
There are good reasons why there has been limited success so far in mobilising the ARF for PD. First, it is ill-equipped institutionally for a demanding and highly dynamic PD role. It is a loosely integrated forum of foreign ministers where sovereignty resides firmly with the 27 states and none has been ceded to the centre. Substantive decisions require the full consensus of all participants. Just one dissenting country can block movement. The secretary-general is vested with little independent authority.
Second, there is no interest among states to refer their disputes to a large multilateral forum like the ARF. They are averse to “multinationalising” issues that can be sensitive to their national interest and are wary of what they see as external intervention in internal affairs. Smaller states that have been subject to decades and centuries of foreign domination are especially wary.
Third, territorial disputes are generally settled among the disputing parties with the assistance of third parties such as the International Court of Justice, if desired. The ARF does not have the expertise, credibility or reputation of such institutions.
The future prospects for the ARF as a conflict management vehicle, therefore, do not appear promising either. Judging its performance by the criteria that the ARF has thrust upon itself will likely continue to yield consistently low ratings, giving the ARF a negative image.
The strength and potential of large multilateral groupings such as the ARF in the varied strategic environment of Asia-Pacific lie in another more rewarding area: promoting the well-being of all its members in the many diverse areas of security as identified by the ARF. The ARF is, in fact, already engaged in the fields of maritime security, disaster relief, counter-terrorism, transnational crime and information and communication technology. Its engagement, however, is driven with a CB/PD/CR objective and progress is assessed from a similar perspective.
Pursuing this narrow agenda is a sad loss for the ARF. It can deliver much more for Asia-
Pacific security if its potential is recognised and fully exploited. The primary security challenges facing the region should be addressed for their own sake rather than to just gather countries together to promote the CB/PD/CR objective. The criteria for assessment of the progress of the ARF should be, for instance, how much it has strengthened maritime security and countered terrorism and transnational crime. It should not be pegged to gauging whether the ARF participants have progressed from confidence building to preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution.
Although it disengages itself from being judged according to the PD criteria, the ARF should redouble efforts to strengthen its institutional capacity for conducting PD. It could also seriously explore playing a third-party role in some of the ongoing disputes and conflicts.
The ARF can also consider establishing working groups on other pressing security issues confronting the region such as major power rivalry, arms control and climate change. These working groups should have specific deliverables and limited lifespans.
All it takes for the ARF to gravitate from a narrow focus on PD to tackling substantive security challenges confronting the region is to tweak its mission statement a little to embrace the promotion of traditional as well as non-traditional security — or comprehensive security in short. Doing this on its 25th anniversary would be a great way to begin its journey into the future.
Mohamed Jawhar Hassan is former chairman and chief executive of Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia