Extending ASEAN's Model of Regional Security

Professor Michael Leifer

The London School of Economics


For further details please see The ASEAN Regional Forum (Oxford: Oxford University Press, Adelphi Paper for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, No.302, 1996



A Summary of the Final Project Report


The prime purpose of this research project has been to examine the nature and to assess the utility of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF); a unique post-Cold War multilateral security arrangement spanning Asia-Pacific. The object of the research went beyond the particular merits of the ARF. The intention was also to enquire into the provenance of the Forum as an extension of a model of regional security pioneered by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The intention was to judge to what extent The ARF's operational existence was informed by theoretical premises about international security at the regional level based on alternative assumptions to those which had informed conventional balance of power practices which had shaped Cold War arrangements.

 The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was set up in Singapore in July 1993 among 18 states as a multilateral security dialogue within Asia-Pacific in order to cope with changes in the strategic environment attendant on the end of the Cold War. Its first working session at the level of foreign ministers convened in Bangkok in July 1994 when it was decided to continue to meet on an annual basis. At the second working session in Bandar Seri Begawan in August 1995,procedural norms were agreed together with the terms on which a limited number of inter-sessional activities would operate with confidence-building in mind. By the time that the third session had convened in Jakarta in July 1996,the membership had increased to 21. The membership then comprised: Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam. By then, an informal moratorium had been imposed on membership, with the exception of North Korea.

 It became evident during the course of my researches that the ARF owed its genesis to an initiative by ASEAN that took its mandate from a meeting of its heads of government in Singapore in January 1992. By then, the Cold War had not only come to an end but also the United States had withdrawn from its military bases in the Philippines and the Soviet Union had disintegrated. The ASEAN states, together with Australia and Japan in particular, shared a concern about the strategic consequences of those dramatic events. The issues of the regional security commitment of the United States, the regional assertiveness of a rising China and the manner of provision for security by Japan converged to point to a disturbing change in the regional balance or, more accurately, distribution of power. The states of ASEAN, however, did not have in mind a conventional balance of power solution, in important part because of the absence within Asia-Pacific of a consensus on the source and nature of primary external threat. In the circumstances, the ASEAN states held up their own experience and model of provision for regional security which corresponded to notions of common and cooperative security which may be found in the theoretical literature of International Relations and which were drawn upon to some practical effect within Europe during the latter stage of the Cold War. From its advent, ASEAN has eschewed defence cooperation under its formal aegis; security has been addressed through political dialogue.

 It became apparent that the ASEAN Regional Forum represented an attempt to apply the modalities of cooperative security to the problem of the balance of power. It did not attempt to do so on its own, however, It was made clear at the outset that the ARF was not intended to serve as an alternative to any existing security arrangements in which all ASEAN states had participated, with the notable exception then of Indonesia. The ARF, based on the ASEAN model of addressing security through political dialogue, was intended to serve as a supplementary vehicle which might influence the milieu in which regional relationships took place. At the outset, however, there was a deliberate attempt to shun the idiom of cooperative security in order to avoid analogies with Cold War experience. The practice of cooperative security was taken further than ASEAN's process of dialogue with limited provision for confidence-building through inter-sessional meetings among officials which has yet to make a major difference to the regional environment.

 The ARF has not directly addressed any security problems in Asia-Pacific. Taiwan has been excluded both from discussion and participation on account of China's political sensibilities. The Korean Peninsula has been discussed in bland terms only and in the absence of a representative from Pyongyang. Some discussion has taken place of the problem of the Spratly Islands but notably not of the critical issue of sovereignty. The balance of interest and concern within the ARF has shifted since its advent to focus, above all, on the regional role of China. The ASEAN states, in particular, have placed great store on securing the continued participation of China in the ARF on the assumption that it makes sense only to engage the People's Republic as a way of inducting it into the ways of good regional citizenship. For its part, the government of China has been able to exploit this preference to apply a diplomatic brake to the momentum of the ARF so restricting its remit to limited confidence-building activities.

 The ARF has become a going-concern but of a one-dimensional kind in its approach to regional security in post-Cold War Asia-Pacific. No state relies on it alone, as evidenced by the regional pattern of arms procurements. Moreover, an unprecedented security agreement between Indonesia and Australia and the reaffirmation of security ties between the United States and Japan have indicated the extent to which the virtues of the balance of power have not been completely discarded. The ARF suffers from similar impediments to ASEAN. However, because of its geographical scope it lacks the quasi-familial intimacy of the smaller body which lent its process of dialogue a greater utility as an instrument of cooperative security. In addition, the ARF has exhibited a structural tension because of the way in which ASEAN has sought to arrogate a diplomatic centrality which has generated resistance among some North-East and Pacific Asian states from an apprehension that their regional interests may be neglected. There is an absence of evidence to suggest that the ARF is greatly informed by theories of cooperative security or that its limited experience supports arguments for the emergence of a practical example of an alternative paradigm on which to base approaches to international security.


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