The recent meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum, or ARF, the Asia Pacific’s premier track for security dialogue, has been applauded as a watershed for the institution — and rightly so. The group’s pledge to fight international terrorism breathed new life into the forum. But the real significance of this year’s meeting is to be found in the substance of those commitments.

Implementation of the measures endorsed at this year’s get-together could mark a turning point for ARF, shifting both its focus and its role. This year’s meeting was considered a real test of ARF’s continuing relevance. The failure to respond with more than words to the threat of international terrorism — especially when Southeast Asia has been identified as the “second front” in the war on terror — would have confirmed the view of critics who argue that ARF is little more than a “talk shop,” long on rhetoric but short on concrete action. Fortunately, ARF rose to the challenge.

The ARF Statement on Measures Against Terrorist Financing lays out specific steps that members will take to fight the terrorist threat. The language is important. The statement does not say that participants “should” or that they “agree to”; it is more emphatic: “ARF participants will implement quickly and decisively measures that the United Nations has identified as mandatory to combating terrorist financing. We will block terrorists’ access to our financial system. We will work with other relevant international bodies.” Steps that the participants will take pertain to:

* freezing terrorist assets;

* implementing international standards;

* international cooperation in the exchange of information and outreach;

* technical assistance; and

* compliance and reporting.

Moreover, the chairman’s statement, the only “official” document that ARF issues, refers to the terrorist financing statement and notes that ARF has “agreed to review its implementation.” In other words, both the language and context of the statements commit ARF members to concrete steps.

Apart from silencing the critics, the agreement marks two other important shifts for the forum. The first concerns the maturation of the forum itself. It is generally accepted that the particulars of the Asia Pacific security environment necessitate a go-slow approach to institution building. As a result, ARF has to start with elementary confidence building before it can consider conflict prevention and, then, the most sensitive topic of all, conflict resolution. (This is sensitive because it could involve military intervention to resolve disputes.)

At this stage, it is argued, the focus belongs on confidence-building measures that would increase trust among members, although there have been some tentative forays into the realm of preventive diplomacy. Yet the Statement on Terrorist Financing calls for clearly defined action. For example, the steps on international cooperation — enhancing international exchange of information, or setting up a financial intelligence unit — go considerably beyond mere confidence building. In other words, ARF members have agreed to do things that are a good distance beyond what had previously been argued was possible. This could be a watershed for the forum.

The second important development at this year’s meeting concerns the focus of the discussions. About one-third of the section of the chairman’s statement that highlights issues is devoted to terrorism. In fact, as much space is given to terrorism and related issues (treaties and conferences controlling weapons of mass destruction) as to geographically focused East Asian security concerns (such as developments on the Korean Peninsula or in the South China Sea).

This shift toward “transnational” threats requires a broad-based approach to security, a formulation that takes us closer to the notions of “comprehensive national security” that China has championed. On the other hand, such an approach has potentially ominous implications for governments that have been zealous protectors of national sovereignty and national prerogatives. Those sensitivities were on full display during negotiations among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which preceded the U.S.-ASEAN Joint Declaration for Cooperation to Combat International Terrorism.

Indonesia and Vietnam were both reluctant to sign any agreement that might legitimize foreign intervention on their soil. To meet their concerns, the agreement recognizes “the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity and nonintervention in the domestic affairs of other states,” the guiding principles of ASEAN diplomacy.

Nevertheless, ASEAN still endorsed information sharing, development of more effective counterterrorism policies and enhancement of liaison relationships among law enforcement agencies. While bounded by “their respective domestic laws and their specific circumstances,” each of these measures once again seems to move ASEAN member governments beyond mere confidence building.

Of course, a genuine evolution of ARF depends on governments’ taking concrete steps to implement these agreements. They could still falter. But if they do, the fault will be their own, not that of the institution. This year, both ASEAN and ARF have taken a real step forward. It is vitally important that the United States acknowledge this progress. It appears to have done so; Secretary of State Colin Powell was given high marks by regional diplomats and analysts following his recent tour of the region.

Also significant was President George W. Bush’s cameo in the video prepared for the traditional dinner that followed ARF. Southeast Asian diplomats appreciate how busy the president is. His willingness to take time from his schedule to make a brief appearance in the U.S. presentation made an impression. Engagement comes in many forms, and the U.S. needs to recognize that a little effort can go a long way.

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