The ASEAN Regional Forum: Reassessing Multilateral Security in the Asia-Pacific

Shankari Sundararaman,Researcher,IDSA


In the post-World War II period, security arrangements have basically been of two distinct types—bilateral and multilateral. During the Cold War, multilateral security structures were more evident and well defined within Europe, where both the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact remained opposed to one another for over a period of four decades. In the case of the Asia-Pacific region, the concept of multilateralism emerged only in the post-Cold War period. Prior to this most of the security structures in the region were more bilateral in nature. Two factors are seen to be responsible for this—first, the Communist states of Asia, that is China, North Korea as well as the states of Indochina were more independent of the Soviet Union than was the case in Europe.1 This could probably be attributed to the fact that in Asia the growth of nationalism and Communism was more or less synonymous with one another. Second, the US allies in North-East and South-East Asia had little in common—as a result of which a multilateral security policy could not be effectively evolved and the existing security links with both the US and the USSR remained primarily bilateral in scope. In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US Administration initially preferred to continue its policy of bilateral defence arrangements with Japan, South Korea (ROK), Thailand, the Philippines and Australia since it was believed that any move towards a multilateral structure would, in the long run, "undermine America's ties to its primary allies and generally weaken US influence in the region."2 The fact remained that the Pacific Allies of the United States were far too weak to offer a credible option for the formation of a multilateral security arrangement, since this would not have had any bearing upon the US capabilities. Therefore, the pursuit of such an option at that time was of little significance to the US. In comparison, the furtherance of the bilateral arrangements offered greater flexibility and also provided the United States with an opportunity to exercise more leverage and control over its weaker allies.3

The shift or transition occurred with the demise of the Cold War, when the USSR ceased to be the raison d'etre for a continued and dominant military presence by the US in the region. This led to the quest for newer forms of security arrangements and multilateralism became more emphasised, without, however, completely abandoning the US treaty relationships that remained the crux of America's forward deployment policy, especially in the Korean Peninsula—the final facet of the Cold War legacy in the region. In the absence of traditional balance-of-power politics, the development of a security arrangement became more of a concert concept where the entire fabric would weave together relevant actors involved in preventive diplomacy, confidence-building measures (CBMs) as well as security-building measures. In essence, a concert formula of arrangement brings together countries in a grouping which has inclusive membership, regardless of whether the states concerned have had past hostilities or friendship.4 In the case of the Asia-Pacific, such a multilateral structure has emerged in the formation of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) which is gradually evolving into a platform for the promotion of regional security, stability and tranquillity.

Evolution and Growth of the ARF

While discussing the emergence of a multilateral security arrangement in the Asia-Pacific, two arguments prevail. The first significant assessment in this regard is that the concept of multilateralism in the Asia-Pacific is closely linked to the process of identity-building. According to Amitav Acharya, "institution-building" in this region is more of a "process-oriented" phenomenon rather than simply being an outcome of structural changes in the international system—such as the decline of the US hegemony or even the collapse of the Soviet Union. In this process of institution-building, there exists tension between the accepted universal ideas and norms that stand opposed to the inherent aspirations for the growth of regional ideas or character which make such institutions distinct from one another. Acharya states that the experience of institution-building in the Asia-Pacific provides a clear example of this kind of tension—where the universal, imported models of multilateralism contrast with the need for a more regional character.5 Second, the whole quest for a multilateral approach to security issues is seen more as the outcome of the shifts and changes in the power structure within the region vis-a-vis both China and Japan , as well as the breakdown of the Cold War system. The very cause for the formation of the ARF is seen in the context of keeping the United States within the region; trying to minimise the role of both China and Japan; and finally using the ARF as a platform to keep the relevance of the ASEAN alive in South-East Asia and within the broader context of the Asia-Pacific.6 Therefore, the rationale behind the growth of multilateralism in the Asia-Pacific seems to be two dimensional—the success of the economic growth and the increased desire for deriving the maximum advantage from the exploitation of such a growth automatically led to the demand for a more well pronounced security apparatus that would ensure the continuity of economic interdependence, without the threat of war. Within this background mulitlateralism is seen more as a concerted effort at problem-solving, which would help to prevent and contain the possibility of regional disorder that could arise from the historical legacy of the region. Furthermore, the presence of a multilateral security organ is to act as a shock-absorber against the existing trends within both the global economic and security climate.7 In the context of security, multilateralism has a more long-term objective—it is seen as a necessary framework to engage China and integrate it into a system of regional order, thereby reducing the need for any rigidly oriented strategy of containment. Also, the continued US presence in the region reduces Japan's independent position vis-a-vis the Asia-Pacific.

While the ARF emerged in 1994, the actual conception of this idea occurred in 1990, when both Canada and Australia separately mooted the idea of a security forum that was patterned along the lines of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which, however, ran into problems and had to be scrapped due to the opposition from both China as well as the ASEAN states.8 This issue was later broached by Japan and was given due consideration by the ASEAN in its Post-Ministerial Conference (PMC), in 1991. During this meeting, the ASEAN officially delegated the discussion of security issues between itself and its dialogue partners to the proceedings of the PMC. Following this, the United States, which had earlier preferred bilateral security arrangements in the region, showed a willingness to accept a multilateral approach to security and this came into effect when in mid-1993, the Clinton Administration fully endorsed the idea of a multilateral security dialogue in the Asia-Pacific.9 Initially, the ASEAN's response to the idea was not very enthusiastic, especially since it felt that the setting up of such a multilateral forum for the Asia-Pacific could not be modelled along the lines of the CSCE which seemed more tailor-made to suit the needs of the security demands of Europe. It later realised that the formation of such a forum was definitely on the cards and, therefore, to remain opposed to the view would only reduce the role that the ASEAN would play in the event of the proposal going through. In view of this fact the ASEAN states moved to "claim the ARF process in the hope that they could channel rather than resist the momentum."10 The second reason for taking a more pivotal role in the inception of the ARF by the ASEAN was that it sought to ensure that the Western states that were encouraging the development of the ARF did not undermine the compulsions of the Asian way by instilling in the forum any major agenda on human rights and democratisation.11 Third, the ASEAN sought to extend its model of conflict prevention to the ARF which would then provide the ASEAN a principal role in the region. Fourth, the ASEAN's expansion to include Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia would automatically increase the clout that the ASEAN would enjoy in the ARF, thereby maintaining the centrality of the ASEAN's position in the ARF. These factors make it imperative for the ASEAN to remain in the forefront of the ARF's development.

The inception of the ARF began with its inaugural meeting in Bangkok in July 1994. This session was patterned after the ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conferences or the PMC which were consultative meetings between ASEAN and its dialogue partners on economic and security issues. At this session it brought together the Foreign Ministers of 18 Asia-Pacific countries for a multilateral dialogue on the various security issues that posed a problem to the region. These were the ASEAN-6, that is Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Brunei, the United States, Russia, China, Japan, Vietnam, Laos, the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Papua New Guinea. This first meeting consisted of a three-hour discussion on security issues pertaining to the South China Sea, the need for and the development of CBMs within the region and various aspects of the usage of preventive diplomacy. At this inaugural session the participants also agreed to convene the meetings of the ARF annually, which were to be along the lines of the ASEAN Annual Ministerial meetings. Subsequently, Cambodia joined the ARF in the 1995 meeting at Brunei; and more recently, India and Myanmar also became members of the ARF.12

In its functioning the ARF had followed a two-pronged policy. The first was the official or the Track I approach in which the security platform was enhanced by the conduct of regular meetings and inter-sessionary seminars where the members of the ARF articulated their security concerns in a broader framework which ensured a common platform for such discussions. By 1995, during the ARF's second meeting in Brunei, the inter-sessionary seminars of the forum had already outlined the various facets of a concept paper that was to be a blueprint for the future functioning of the ARF. It identified three main directions in which the ARF would proceed: confidence building; preventive diplomacy; and conflict resolution. In an attempt to follow up the identification of these proceedings, Joint Working Groups were established pertaining to the three different aspects of the ARF's objectives. The first, on CBMs was to be co-chaired by Indonesia and Japan; the second related to the issue of peace-keeping operations and was to be headed by Canada and Malaysia; while the third dealt with search and rescue missions and was co-chaired by Singapore and the United States.13 Within the official parameters of its objectives, the ARF is not regarded either as an alliance or as a collective security mechanism. It is seen more as a forum for the development of CBMs and preventive diplomacy. Its contribution is considered to be in three significant ways—"by promoting transparency in strategic intent and threat perceptions; by building mutual trust and confidence with regard to military capabilities and deployments; and by developing a habit of cooperation which will facilitate peaceful resolution of conflicts."14

Apart from this, the ARF also has a secondary method of dialogue through the Track II or the unofficial level of discussions. In fact, the very conceptual framework of the ARF emerged as a result of very lengthy and detailed study that was carried out by the ASEAN Institute of International and Security Studies, that is the ASEAN-ISIS. The ASEAN-ISIS consists of academics and government officials who have interacted among one another in an attempt to discuss issues relating to economics, diplomacy and security and have acted as an advisory body to their respective governments. The ASEAN-ISIS has been instrumental in pushing their governments forward with the objective of setting up a security platform that would utilise the core values of the ASEAN's principles of national and regional resilience.15 Using this model of Track II policy formulation, the ARF set up the Council for Security Cooperation in Asia-Pacific (CSCAP). Within the CSCAP each member state may establish its own National Council and this has been done so by the ASEAN, Japan, Canada, Australia, the ROK, and the US. Both the ASEAN-ISIS and the CSCAP have been responsible for the incorporation of several study groups that have held a series of seminars, the results of which were discussed in the ARF meeting of August 1995.16 The functioning of the CSCAP was extended to include several other activities that comprised greater transparency with regard to military activities; the formation of a register on regional arms; more enhanced interaction among the members by the regular exchange of Defence White Papers; the presence of outside observers at military exercises; interaction as well as exchange among military personnel; and the creation and development of centres that would deal with issues relating to regional peace-keeping.17 Among these provisions for its functioning, the voluntary publication of Defence White Papers was considered a very significant step in the right direction. Moreover, China also agreed to co-chair with the Philippines the April 1996 inter-sessionary dialogue on CBMs.

ARF: The Main Objectives

It is interesting to note that the formation of the ARF has occurred at a time when the end of the Cold War has ushered in a phase in international politics, where the development of multilateralism is seen as a viable option for the solution of regional and even extra-regional issues pertaining to security in the Asia-Pacific. With the growing interdependence among nations, in both economic and security matters, the need for a platform like the ARF is even more augmented. The assessment of the ARF's extant is to be evaluated within this context of change in the post-Cold War period. Due to the complexity of the political issues which have plagued the region, the ARF had been instilled with three main objectives—confidence building measures, preventive diplomacy and the question of non-proliferation and arms control.

These three objectives of the ARF were identified after an assessment of the various problems that affected the region. First, in the post-Cold War period there was a compelling need to establish a balance among the powers that were involved in this region, especially among the US, Russia, China and Japan. Other than these states there were several other "middle powers" that needed to be recognised in terms of their varying potential within the region and as such the need for a multilateral plank upon which the security issues of the entire region could be placed became an imperative. Second, the region has also been witness to some on-going inter-state conflicts such as the tensions in the Korean Peninsula, the territorial dispute between Japan and Russia, the debate over the recognition of Taiwan and the reactions of China in this regard as well as the dispute over the rights of territory in the South China Sea.18 Third, the issue of an arms build-up in the region is of crucial concern which also has to be addressed by the ARF. Apart from these main facets, there are other related issues such as domestic compulsions which cause instability, transnational crime, and economic interdependence which pose a concern to the actors within the region.19

It was on the basis of these issues that the three objectives of the ARF were identified. The ARF's proposal to develop the objectives upon which it is likely to base its programme of functioning has been endorsed in a Concept Paper circulated by the ASEAN in 1995. This paper identified the ARF's approach to security cooperation in three categories—confidence building, preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution. The final category of conflict resolution was later changed at the Brunei meeting as elaboration of approaches to conflict.

Confidence-Building Measures

In view of the political and security compulsions, there was a need to endorse a programme of confidence building in the region and this was one of the main aims of the ARF's inception. Confidence building measures were identified as a very significant aspect of cooperative security since this form of multilateral approach is generally based on the premise that there are no specific enemies within the membership of the forum. There is an acceptance among the member states that territorial disputes and other forms of disagreements and tensions can definitely prevail between the members but that is where CBMs are to be effectively used. The basic thrust of the effectiveness of CBMs depends wholly upon the principle of transparency, especially with regard to military spending and force structure; military doctrine and military activities.20 While most of the members of the ARF are willing to publish Defence White Papers on these matters, there is an overall reluctance to give too much information. This is where the need for the furtherance of CBMs comes into effect since in the case of an arms build-up more transparency is required. Within this context, two forms of CBMs have been identified—the first is the type where some form of information exchange is essential and this relates to the present case scenario where enhanced dialogue and non-threatening postures of approach to regional issues are more necessary. The second case is more specifically related to the build-up of arms and the deployment of defence capabilities that may tilt the regional security balance at a particular given time. In such a case, a more concerted effort is needed where the CBMs are based on specific measures of constraint —these can probably be used in the case of the Spratlys dispute where the potential for an open conflict becomes more of a possibility.

Preventive Diplomacy

This refers to certain measures that are adopted to encompass a variety of strategies which can be used to resolve or contain disputes through peaceful non-military methods. The measures that are used in the application of preventive diplomacy are stipulated and enshrined in Article 33 of the United Nations Charter and these include negotiations, inquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement of disputes and other non-coercive methods of resolution.21 The advantage of preventive diplomacy within a larger cooperative security grouping is that the entire forum allows for a cushioning effect as far as regional tensions are concerned. Another aspect of the significance of preventive diplomacy is that in order to solve certain security issues, there has been a strengthening of the bilateral relations among the members. One of the methods by which the concept of preventive diplomacy has been advanced is through the ASEAN and its dialogue partners endorsement of the 1971 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), which was to act as a code of conduct among the member states. This was essentially a non-aggression pact aimed at promoting the peaceful resolution of disputes among the various signatories.22 The TAC was accepted as the basis of regional order in the Western Pacific during the ARF meeting in 1994.

Non-Proliferation and Arms Control

Another major thrust of the ARF has been the issue of non-proliferation and arms control in the region of the Asia-Pacific. The idea of this emerged from the ASEAN process and the members of the ARF sought to integrate this within the context of their own security concerns. There was a pressing need to create a strategic environment that would promote trust, confidence and dialogue among the members. This issue was to be addressed in a specific manner—first, strengthen the instruments of non-proliferation such as the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) as well as the United Nations register on conventional arms. Second, it aimed at promoting three concepts—a South-East Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone (SEANWFZ), which would also strengthen the NPT, the idea of the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN), and the endorsement of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). These three had earlier been a part of the ASEAN programme and their extension to the ARF had to be adjusted and developed to the new security demands that ensued from the demise of the Cold War. What becomes significant from the application of these ideas is that there would be no hegemony of any major power and the position of all the members would be considered to be equal within the ARF.

One of the most obvious conclusions that can be drawn from the study of the ARF's objectives is that the ARF has a predominantly ASEAN character to it. The evolution of the ARF and the principles upon which it has been founded are identified as the "ASEAN way," which specifically refers to a unique approach of the ASEAN towards areas of conflict-settlement and regional cooperation. The singleness of the ASEAN way has been emphasised in both the conduct of inter-state behaviour as well as in the policy relating to decision making where there is total dependence on the processes of consultation and consensus. One of the most important aspects that has been adopted into the ARF functioning is the preference for informality in the proceedings and the exclusion of excessive institutionalisation.23 Another essential facet of the ASEAN policy that seems to have been incorporated into the ARF is the indispensability of the bilateral approach even within the context of commitment to multilateralism in the region. This has to be viewed in a very definitive framework where the option of using a bilateral approach remains intact within the larger shelf of a cooperative security arrangement.

It is this approach along the lines of the ASEAN and the predominant role of the ASEAN within the ARF which is seen to be slightly negative. There is a view that prevails among the non-ASEAN states that the ARF is more an instrument for the extension of the ASEAN into both North-East Asia and the Pacific. Thus, the control that the ASEAN exercises over both the agenda and the pace of the ARF, are factors that pose a challenge to the growth of the ARF. Another area on which some clarity is needed is the issue of the inclusion of both Taiwan and North Korea. As long as these remain outside the ARF framework, there will be considerable difficulty in bringing some focus upon two very crucial conflict zones in the Asia-Pacific region. Another factor is the total adherence to the "ASEAN way," which may in the long run undermine the working of the ARF. It is imperative to bear in mind that the ASEAN at the time of its inception remained a small grouping with fewer problems than is the case today. The growth of the ASEAN to include Myanmar , Laos and Vietnam also brings with it a variety of new and more complex issues that will require special attention. Similarly, with the ASEAN in the driver's seat of the ARF, there may be some fallouts of the ASEAN's tensions in the ARF. In fact, it would be "more realistic to regard the forum as a modest contribution to a viable balance or distribution of power within the Asia-Pacific by other than traditional means."23

While the above assessment of the ARF may seem to be pessimistic, there are certain successes that are commendable. It is a fact that these are seen to be modest achievements, but are none the less factors which deserve to be highlighted. These must be viewed within the context of the actual content of the ARF that brings together a very diverse group of states which have had at different times tensions arising from conflicts and threat perceptions. The very fact that these states can now come together on a common platform for the resolution and discussion of security issues in itself is an achievement. Moreover, the ARF has succeeded in bringing to the forefront various issues relevant to the security concerns in the region. Here it is different from the ASEAN, where the question of security did not play a pivotal role, since its political agenda was cloaked in a more broader economic grouping. Finally it must be stated that the ARF has managed to broaden the scope of the security dialogue in the Asia-Pacific region—it remains the only grouping where all the major powers have been represented on a common stage and have the benefit of interacting in security related issues. What remains to be seen is whether this "baby" in cooperative security structure can withstand the teething troubles that are an inevitable part of the growing pains.



1. Simon W. Sheldon, "ASEAN Regional Forum," in Carpenter and Wiencek ed., Asian Security Handbook: An Assessment of Political Security Issues in the Asia-Pacific Region (New York: East Gate, 1996), p. 41.

2. Ibid.

3. For details, see, Amitav Acharya, "Ideas, Identity and Institution-Building: From the 'ASEAN Way' to the 'Asia-Pacific Way'," Pacific Review, vol. 10, no. 3, p. 321.

4. n. 1, p. 42.

5. n. 3.

6. Michael Leifer, "The ASEAN Regional Forum: Extending ASEAN's Model of Regional Security," Adelphi Paper, no. 302, 1996, pp. 19-20.

7. n. 3, p. 323.

8. It is believed that the CSCE was a model upon which the ARF was to be developed as a plank for common security in the Asia-Pacific. However, it could not really take any effective shape due to various opposing trends in drawing a parallel between the universal model that the CSCE stood for and the actual plans for evolving a security platform for the region.

9. n. 1, p. 42. Also see, Shaun Narine, "ASEAN and the ARF: The Limits of the 'ASEAN Way'," Asian Survey, vol. 37, no. 10, October 1997, p. 963.

10. For details, see Michael Antolik, "The ASEAN Regional Forum: The Spirit of Constructive Engagement," Contemporary Southeast Asia, vol. 16, September 1994, pp. 118-21.

11. David Camroux, "The Asia-Pacific Policy Community in Malaysia," Pacific Review, vol. 7, no. 4, 1995, p. 424.

12. n. 9, p. 961.

13. n. 6.

14. For details, see Amitav Acharya, "Making Multilateralism Work: ARF and Security in the Asia-Pacific," in Michael W. Everett and Mary A. Sommerville ed., Multilateral Activities in Southeast Asia (Washington: NDU, 1995), pp. 179-93.

15. Pauline Kerr, "The Security Dialogue in the Asia-Pacific," Pacific Review, vol. 7, no. 4, 1994, p. 403.

16. The first seminar on CBMs was held at Australia; peace-keeping issues were dealt with in a discussion at Brunei; and Seoul had hosted the seminar on the question of preventive diplomacy. n. 1, p. 43.

17. n. 1, p. 44.

18. The debates over the rights of both the Spratlys and the Paracel group of islands are yet to be resolved. Even in the case of the recognition of Taiwan, China voiced a strong opposition to it and the ARF agreed to recognise only sovereign states as its members. At the time of the formation of the CSCAP, the Chinese refused to take part in the proceedings if Taiwan were included—the fact that the CSCAP was more a non-governmental grouping did not prevent the Chinese from opposing the inclusion of Taiwan.

19. H.S. Ahluwalia, "ASEAN Regional Forum: Implications on Stability in the Region," Trishul, vol. 9, no. 1, Autumn 1996, p. 55.

20. n. 1, p. 45.

21. n. 19, p. 57.

22. n. 1, p. 43.

23. n. 3, p. 329.

23. n. 6, p. 59.