Over 20 years ago, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was founded to address highly sensitive and contentious political and security issues in Asia. Its objective was to develop confidence-building measures and, in time, preventive diplomacy with an ultimate goal of resolving conflicts in the region.
Despite these high ambitions, the ARF has not moved on from confidence-building measures and looks unlikely to implement preventive diplomacy in the near future. Yet an increasingly fragile regional security environment, exemplified by North Korean nuclear tests and naval jostling in the East and South China Seas, demands renewed attention to the ARF’s untapped potential in conducting preventive diplomacy.
The ARF’s failure to adequately address both traditional and non-traditional security challenges is commonly attributed to one of two opposing reasons. On the one hand, some criticise the ARF’s overly formalised institutional structure for undermining its effectiveness in enacting preventive diplomacy. On the other hand, the ARF has also been criticised for its ideological leaning toward the ‘ASEAN way’, which, by emphasising sovereignty and consensus building, effectively limits opportunities for member-states to practice preventive diplomacy.
Despite this seemingly intractable dilemma, there are three important policy areas in which the ARF can capitalise on both its institutional formality and its flexibility. These are among the lowest hanging fruits that can save the ARF from degenerating into a geopolitically irrelevant forum for regional crisis management.
First, let’s begin with the most common type of security threat. A total of 26 sub-state conflicts have rocked Asia in the last 20 years, lasting an average of 45 years and killing at least 1.35 million Asians since 1946. However, even in the middle of a potential civil war, or the ‘most deadly type of conflict in Asia,’ the ARF typically would not release a statement, nor would it authorise diplomatic action to prevent internal conflicts even when host governments themselves consent and request such action.
One reason for this is that ARF’s unusually narrow definition of preventive diplomacy imposes institutional constraints on its ability to engage in these situations. ARF’s definition restricts preventive diplomacy ‘to conflicts between and among States.’ Non-state conflicts are therefore off bounds.
However, authorising consensual and non-coercive preventive diplomacy upon the host state’s request would not contradict the existing ARF agreement. This move would bring the ARF closer in line with major institutional actors such as the United Nations. Indeed, the promotion of preventive diplomacy does not weaken the ARF’s legitimacy as a regional institution, but only strengthens it.
Second, in a similar vein, the ARF should better utilise its institutional capacity by tasking the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) and the Group of Experts and Eminent Persons (EEPs) with clearer instructions for developing concrete preventive diplomacy mechanisms. This sentiment has been echoed by many regional analysts who have persistently argued that the ARF should develop a more effective institutional backbone to begin practicing preventive diplomacy.
Crisis simulations of potential conflicts (known as Table-Top Exercises), fact-finding missions by ‘eminent persons’ and, ultimately, a risk reduction centre are all potential areas for improvement that have been kicking around for years. ARF member-states would do well to recognise that an institution’s strength resides not on paper but in practice. Enduring and emerging traditional and non-traditional security threats in Southeast Asia — including piracy, natural disasters and other unanticipated crises — provide many opportunities for the ARF to demonstrate its strength as a regional actor.
Third, the ARF should capitalise on its culture of flexibility and consensus building through a stepped-up program of preparatory activities in 2016–2017. Such a program could include a schedule of regular Table-Top Exercises, which could be facilitated by CSCAP and conducted by EEPs or officials in their personal capacity. These exercises would explore the potential actions of the ARF in a variety of regional contingencies. None of these scenarios would be binding.
A final ARF Report on Table-Top Exercises presented to member-states in 2018 could advise on the feasibility of mandating a risk reduction center to carry out similar activities into the future. Suggestions such as those recently made by the Singaporean Minister of Foreign Affairs could shed light on other viable directions for future consideration.
This proposed schedule would afford member-states two years of productive time studying preventive diplomacy in detail, without tying the hands of any member-state. It would also give reluctant states the opportunity to consider and critique various diplomatic mechanisms before making a decision in 2018.
The challenges and obstacles to real progress within the ARF are clear. Tackling intra-state conflicts without infringing on sovereignty will continue to be a sticking point for ASEAN countries. Still, there are creative ways to approach this within a broader framework on preventive diplomacy. This is especially true if the ARF were to develop a new mechanism based on the principle of state-consent.
As the region continues to grapple with acute security challenges, the burden is on the ASEAN Regional Forum to develop concrete diplomatic measures that could bring immediate, tangible benefits to the people of Asia.
ASEAN needs to re-think its approach to preventive diplomacy is republished with permission from East Asia Forum