This year’s meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum could not have been more timely. China and Taiwan were engaged in a vicious exchange as Beijing threatened war against the island it regards as a renegade province. Tensions in Indonesia were high as political parties rejected the results of the June national election and as East Timor prepared for its own vote on independence. In Northeast Asia, the prospect of another North Korean missile test cast a shadow across the entire region. Each underscored the need for a more vibrant and resilient regional security architecture. Against all odds, the ARF could, with effort, meet that need.

The ARF was set up by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1994 to discuss regional security issues with its “dialogue partners,” 12 other countries that include Japan, the United States and China. It was established amid high hopes that such a forum would give ASEAN an international political presence; those ambitions have foundered in recent years. Although there are several reasons for that, the chief culprit has been the regional economic crisis. It has distracted ASEAN governments and revealed that the organization’s much vaunted unity was less real than assumed. And if ASEAN was not unified, then ASEAN had no foundation.

Not surprisingly, the mood at the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting that preceded the ARF was glum, as participants reflected on the sad truth. But the ARF meeting itself surpassed expectations. In contrast to the past, the group did not shy away from tough issues. And, this year, they produced results.

India and China agreed to accede to the protocol of a treaty that would create a nuclear weapons-free zone in Southeast Asia. The treaty was agreed at the 1995 ASEAN summit, and seeks to prevent the manufacture, testing or storage of nuclear weapons in the region. Beijing also showed willingness to join ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, which outlines ways of preventing and resolving disputes in the region. China also agreed to consider ASEAN’s proposed code of conduct in the South China Sea.

The latter is especially important, since Beijing has steadfastly refused to discuss the territorial disputes in the South China Sea in multilateral forums. There is reason to be cautious, however, since the move coincides with the verbal clash with Taiwan; it could be designed to win China international support during a period of tension. Time will tell if Beijing is serious, but its neighbors should assume that it is and put the Chinese government to the test.

China is central to the ARF’s eventual success. In addition to providing ASEAN with a political platform, the institution was set up with an eye to “domesticating” China, and making it into a good international citizen. But that has required that ASEAN governments present a unified front when dealing with Beijing. When they have, China has been constrained. Unfortunately, ASEAN members often have been been unable to come up with a single policy among themselves, and China has been adept at divide and conquer.

Indonesia is also central to the group’s future. As the largest and most populous country in ASEAN, it is the group’s natural center of gravity. Former President Suharto was the group’s senior statesman and leader. The turmoil in Indonesia creates a vacuum that is felt throughout the region. A return to stability there is essential.

Finally, Japan will have to play a key role. The ARF concept was developed and pushed by Japan. Although ASEAN was to lead the group, Tokyo would provide political, economic and intellectual backing. Unfortunately, the prolonged recession in Japan has had an impact on ASEAN — and the ARF — which is natural since Japanese companies have such an important presence in the region. The clash between Washington and Tokyo over ways to deal with the economic crisis — and especially Japan’s retreat from the Asian Monetary Fund concept — undermined hopes that Japan would be more assertive when handling regional problems.

That is changing. Japan has adopted a more aggressive regional economic diplomacy with the Miyazawa Initiative. This week, Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said Japan will support Southeast Asian proposals to establish a consultative mechanism to ensure that Asian interests are heard at the annual summit of the G8 countries, which will be held next year in Okinawa.

As the outlook for ASEAN brightens, ARF’s fortunes improve. The events of the last two years have sobered ARF members and obliged them to become more realistic. That is the best basis to build an enduring and stable framework for regional security.

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