The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) held its 28th annual ministerial meeting on 6 August 2021. It was chaired by Brunei and it issued an elaborate 35 paragraph declaration. The Indian delegation to the virtual meeting was led by the new Minister of State in the Ministry of External Affairs, Dr Rajkumar Ranjan Singh. Aligned with PM Modi’s address to the United Nation Security Council on 9 August, the Minister of State emphasised maritime security cooperation, the Indo-Pacific, the threat of terrorism, the importance of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and cyber security.
In 2021, India co-chaired an ARF workshop on implementing the UNCLOS. During 2021-22, India will co-chair the ARF Inter Sessional Meeting (ISM) on maritime security, along with co-chairs Indonesia and the United States (US). India will conduct a workshop on International Ship and Port facility Security Code (ISPS Code) with the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and the US.
India revived interest in the ARF over recent years. It fits in well with India’s growing interest in issues of maritime security. Several elements enunciated in PM Modi’s UNSC address are part of the focus of India’s cooperation within the ARF. This is related to the enhanced Chinese threat to maritime security in the region.
The ARF is the largest and the oldest of the ASEAN centrality institutions. Established in 1993, its first meeting was in 1994. It has 27 members, which includes the ASEAN 10, the 10 dialogue partners (DP) of ASEAN, and seven other countries.
India revived interest in the ARF over recent years. It fits in well with India’s growing interest in issues of maritime security. Several elements enunciated in PM Modi’s UNSC address are part of the focus of India’s cooperation within the ARF.
ARF was launched soon after the Cold War ended and included all countries who had engaged with ASEAN. This brought in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan from South Asia, ASEAN candidates Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste; Mongolia and North Korea (DPRK) are its members too. Other non-East Asian Summit members in ARF are Canada and the European Union (EU). The CLMV countries—Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam—became part of ASEAN after ARF was launched.
‘The ARF seeks to to foster constructive dialogue and consultation on political and security issues of common interest and concern; and to make significant contributions to efforts towards confidence-building and preventive diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region.’ When ARF completed a decade in 2004, the East Asia Summit (EAS) was being prepared to launch in 2005 and ASEAN+1 summits with DPs had set in. India became a sectoral partner of ASEAN in 1992 and a DP in 1996. A summit level partnership emerged in 2002. The ASEAN+3 Summit with Japan, Korea, and China has been held since 1997.
The ARF was a foreign ministers-led forum which met alongside the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in August annually. Since the emergence of the EAS in 2005, their foreign ministers’ (FM) meeting also takes place at the time. The ASEAN+1 FMs meetings with DPs are all part of the same time frame. Thus, while ARF was unique in 1994, over a period of time, it lost its salience.
Despite the lead role that ARF had in the regional security architecture, it became relevant for three aspects. First, it was the largest FMs forum for any ASEAN-related institution. Secondly, its 27-members gave it an ambience that was different. Thirdly, it provided a wide diplomatic avenue to be a “consultative Asia-Pacific Forum for promoting open dialogue on political and security cooperation in the region.”
ARF was to promote confidence building. This could then lead to preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution. ASEAN attributes of consensus, confidence building, and progress at a speed which does not cause anxiety to members have dominated the ARF process since inception. ASEAN did not progress in this value chain itself, therefore, neither did ARF. The EAS and ADMM+ were better organised and had more focused meetings.
The ARF has a Track 1.5 and Track 2 level. The Experts and Eminent Persons (EEPs) meeting (Track 1.5) has been held since 2006. In 2015, it suggested better coordination with newer institutions in the region. It suggested that ‘ARF needs to transform itself into a problem-solving institution’ from a talk shop; it proposed a non-ASEAN co-chair; it asked for a secretariat to be co-located with APEC. Its suggestions caused anxiety to ASEAN members and thus came to a halt.
ARF needs to transform itself into a problem-solving institution’ from a talk shop; it proposed a non-ASEAN co-chair; it asked for a secretariat to be co-located with APEC.
At the 13th EEP meeting held in Japan in 2019, India was absent. The EEP suggested to ‘renew and refresh the ARF’ with a wider agenda. The pandemic provided that opportunity to ARF.
At Track 2, the Council for Security Cooperation in Asia and Pacific (CSCAP) and ASEAN Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ASEAN-ISIS) remain engaged. Neither of these tracks has done much but at least they kept ARF working on one track.
On specific issues of interest, ARF has established annual inter-sessional meetings (ISMs). Currently, there are four ISMs, on counterterrorism and trans-national crime (CTTC), maritime security, disaster relief, and non-proliferation and disarmament.
Since 2012, the South China Sea (SCS) became controversial due to China’s activity. India reconfigured its approach to ARF and started taking it more seriously; it actively started to host some of the activity. A clutch of ASEAN countries, the major EAS members, Canada, and the EU are the main chairs of the 25 activities held annually.
The recent ARF meeting showed that besides the pandemic and nontraditional threats, the ARF is mainly concerned with keeping the non-nuclear status of ASEAN. It is concerned with the DPRK’s nuclear ambitions and the SCS.
China always believed that the SCS was not a multilateral matter but a matter of bilateral relations with specific ASEAN member states. At ARF, countries voice their concerns freely.
The ARF discusses DPRK regularly since it is the only regional institution of which the DPRK is a member. The DPRK always participates; normally their FM did but for the last three years, but their ambassador in Jakarta has.
Many countries that are wary of DPRK, use ARF to criticise the DPRK’s role and ambitions. DPRK, in turn, uses ARF as a window to articulate its position which it has little scope for in the region. While supporters of the ARF don't concede this, in reality, the DPRK issue is the one issue which makes the ARF relevant.
The ARF is essentially discussing a voluntary set of issues that countries concede to discuss. As there are several institutions to choose from, an issue arbitrage occurs to discuss issues at ARF.
The ARF is a forum rather than an institution. Thus, it did not have a secretariat, similar to the EAS in that aspect. Today, both the EAS and the ARF, have small units at the ASEAN secretariat. Their financial and human resources are limited which has a bearing on the efficacy of follow up to their meetings. The ARF has made an appeal to strengthen the unit; it is addressed to ASEAN but they want their centrality but don’t enhance the resources for the units.
ARF can only work as fast and potently as ASEAN does. ASEAN centrality is its core identity. Some see that as a hindrance; in reality, the ARF continues to function because it provides a buffer between contending positions. The value of the ARF is precisely this space that it provides between growing contention within the USA, Quad, and China.
Both the EAS and the ARF, have small units at the ASEAN secretariat. Their financial and human resources are limited which has a bearing on the efficacy of follow up to their meetings.
Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and other non-EAS countries valued ARF meetings for the opportunity they get, to meet so many FMs at one time. The virtual method robs them of that.
The ARF is an FM-led forum without a summit. Thus, it is largely led by officials and the ministers use it as the 4th innings of a busy schedule in August.
Due to paucity of time FMs essentially endorse a draft presented by the officials. It is a two-step process, whereas the EAS and the ASEAN summit, for instance, have a three-step process which includes the summit.
The best thing which ARF quietly does is the capacity building effort. The Hanoi Plan of Action (2020-25) has a large number of activities which are annually reported upon. The implementation is left to the voluntary co-chairs which normally are one of the ASEAN country and one or two other partners. Not all 27 are active in this.
To the subjects of the 4 ISMs, this plan added cybersecurity, defence dialogue, Peace Keeping Operations (PKO), and Confidence Building Measures (CBM). It seeks to bolster the role of the ARF chair, but it is the same country who is the ASEAN chair! It also seeks a fund and a stronger unit at ASEAN secretariat but its like appealing to oneself. It maintains itself as a central pillar of regional security; however, The attendant responsibilities that come with that centrality are not always accepted.
The ARF cannot resolve security issues or provide responses to non-traditional security threats. Yet, the ARF is not irrelevant. The ARF brings regional players together in a dialogue and aspires to promote practical cooperation to deal with NTS. Its fragilities are often also its strengths.
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Gurjit Singh has served as Indias ambassador to Germany Indonesia Ethiopia ASEAN and the African Union. He is the Chair of CII Task Force on ...Read More +