what is better for ASEAN in the future ?if all countries in ASEAN united ?

The ASEAN Regional Forum is a dead-end, so what?

Author: Joel Rathus
Examining the reports and minutes from the ASEAN Regional Forum’s Inter-Sessional Group on Confidence Building and Preventative Diplomacy (ISG-CBMs) doesn’t exactly instil much confidence in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). This group is the litmus test of mutual trust in East Asia. More than that, it is a window into the thinking of the member states on the prospect of regional inter-state violence, up to and including, war.

While East Asia’s recent moves towards more and deeper regionalism, driven in part by uneasiness inspired by the Bush administration’s unilateralism and inattention to the region, would suggest a greater level of trust between the regional countries, the results of the ISG-CBMs are less than inspiring. Indeed, on reading what was being claimed as a CBM, one could be forgiven for losing some confidence that Asia could learn from Europe and find its way to a true peace predicated on trust rather than a cold peace based on the US hegemonic stabilizer and functional elite relations overlying popular fear and mistrust.
Indeed, the flurry of regionalism at the economic level is perhaps due in large part to the inability to achieve more difficult political cooperation. This should not be surprising. The rush towards Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) in East Asia is one such example. Greater political cooperation would envisage a single regional FTA, rather than the so-called ‘noodle bowl’ (some say network, others hodge-podge) of bilateral trade agreements now criss-crossing the region. The same politics infects regional financial arrangements.
The text [pdf] of the 2009 report – at which the group discussed the future of the ARF says:
’Thailand briefed the Meeting on the development of the draft ARF Vision Statement…Some delegations expressed their view that the Vision Statement should be a strong statement focusing on…concrete initiatives that ARF should undertake… [Other] members noted that the Vision Statement should [be]…a declaration of ARF principles and…not a plan of action.’
There was no agreement reached on the Vision Statement. That means, there is no shared Vision for the ARF. But with no shared vision there can be no future for the ARF, only an institutional dead-end. Indeed, the fact that the debate is still going on 15 years after the creation of the ARF suggests that the ARF has been in arrested development for a while. But so what? Does it matter greatly that the ARF has been unable to advance a vision, and in particular to advance its CBMs agenda?
Yes, it matters. The failure of the ARF (and specifically the ISG-CBMs) to bring about greater military transparency in a manner similar to the Helsinki Accords of 1975 is arguably the most important factor in driving Japan into the arms of America, and in projecting itself into the region by proposing and signing mini-lateral security agreements (such as with Australia and India). These closed shops will do nothing to ease the heightened Chinese sense of national security; indeed, it is precisely this kind activity which feeds the regional security dilemma. Of course, Chinese resistance within the ARF played an important role in the inability of the ARF to engender habits of cooperation (through diffuse reciprocity) and reach a common political vision. But once another major regional player, such as Japan, defaults to closed-door, zero-sum type external balancing, then trust, and peace, become increasingly unlikely.
Joel Rathus is Phd candidate in Asian Studies at Meiji University, Japan and Adelaide University, Australia. This article is also available here on Joel’s blog Eris in Asia.


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