The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has signed up in the war against terrorism. That is the key development from the annual meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum, or ARF, Asia’s premier security institution, which convened last week in Brunei. The U.S.-ASEAN agreement was the most notable outcome of last week’s conclave, but, as always, important talks took place on the periphery of the main meeting. Those discussions, both bilateral and multilateral, confirm the utility of ARF and the need for the continued pursuit of an institutionalized security dialogue in Asia.
This year’s meeting was a critical one for ARF. Terrorism dominated the discussions. The focus was understandable, given the presence of U.S. troops helping to fight Abu Sayyaf guerrillas in the Philippines, and Malaysia and Singapore arresting alleged al-Qaeda-linked extremists accused of plotting bomb attacks. The U.S. declaration that Southeast Asia was “a second front” in the war against terror constituted an open challenge to Southeast Asian governments. A failure to respond on their part would have marginalized ASEAN governments in American eyes, as well as the ARF process that they have worked so hard to develop.
Cognizant of the stakes, ASEAN governments joined the U.S. in a Joint Declaration for Cooperation to Combat International Terrorism. The declaration commits ASEAN governments to share information, increase police cooperation and plug holes that extremists could exploit. In exchange, the U.S. has pledged technical and logistic aid. The U.S.-ASEAN agreement was the backbone of a pledge by ARF member governments to “block terrorists’ access to our financial system.” To do that, they agreed to freeze the assets of suspected terrorist groups “without delay.” The agreement promises a range of cooperative efforts from freezing assets to creating “financial intelligence units.”
Turning those promises into action is the rub. ARF has been accused of being little more than a “talk shop.” Such criticism is only natural: The institution reflects “ASEAN values” as it was founded by ASEAN and an ASEAN government always holds the chair. The discussions and the documents it has produced must balance Asian sensitivity toward any encroachment on national sovereignty and the demand for real action raised by its members from the West. All too often the final result, to Western critics, has given more weight to the former than the latter. As a result, frustrations with ARF have often run high and there have been constant complaints about its relevance and worries about its ultimate viability.
This year’s deliberations were no different. Some ASEAN governments were reportedly concerned that commitment to the U.S.-led war on terrorism would constitute interference in their domestic politics as well as result in a long-term U.S. military presence in the region. A clause that reiterated ASEAN’s commitment to noninterference and U.S. statements that it was not considering any military deployment allowed the declaration to be signed.
The agreement is important for several reasons. It makes plain ASEAN’s commitment to the fight against terror; that reassures the U.S. of the region’s readiness to be a good partner and solidifies ties between Washington and Southeast Asia. Ensuring U.S. commitment to the region is a top priority of ASEAN governments.
While the terrorism declaration is being touted for rejuvenating ARF, the meeting has other purposes, the most important of which are the meetings on the sidelines among the assembled leaders from the 13 other nations, which include the U.S., China, India, Japan, both Koreas, Russia, Australia and New Zealand. The big star this year was North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun. Mr. Paek met Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi and the two have agreed “to make serious efforts” to resume negotiations to normalize relations between their countries. Mr. Paek also met “informally” with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and the two men also reportedly agreed to resume their bilateral dialogue.
For all that was accomplished in Brunei, there was one important area in which there was no progress. ASEAN has yet to reach agreement with China on a “code of conduct” to prevent clashes in the South China Sea. In addition to the opposition of China, ASEAN itself has been unable to agree on a single position. The failure to unite on this vital issue is a troubling reminder of ASEAN’s limits. ASEAN’s future relevance — and that of ARF — ultimately depends on ASEAN’s ability to overcome this limitation. The organization’s readiness to join the war on terrorism is proof that it understands that words must lead to action. This year’s ARF is a good start, but it is only that.
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