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North Korea’s July 5 missile launches were a timely reminder for East Asia. They served notice to foreign ministers attending the 13th meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) last last week in Kuala Lumpur that East Asia remains a dangerous place, and that their governments must work actively together to combat a variety of threats.

Critics charge that ARF is merely a talk shop long on rhetoric and short on action. By some standards that’s true, but ARF, like Asia, is evolving and demonstrating the potential to tackle tough issues that the region faces.

The first of last week’s meetings was the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, which brought together foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. That was followed by the ASEAN Post Ministerial Conference, in which ASEAN met its “plus three” partners, Japan, China and South Korea, and others — such as the United States, Australia, the European Union and Russia — for a “10-plus-10 working lunch.” These representatives were joined by yet more ARF colleagues to tackle broader regional security concerns.

ARF reflects a distinctly Asian perspective about security issues. As relatively “young” states, many Asian nations are extremely sensitive to sovereignty concerns. They are reluctant to cede authority on core national interests to a multilateral organization. As a result, ARF often takes the “lowest common denominator” approach to issues.

Given the region’s many pressing security concerns — the tensions surrounding North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the political standoff between the two governments on either side of the Taiwan Strait, Kashmir — ARF’s reluctance to engage fully on these issues has been frustrating, especially for non-Asian members.

This year’s meeting hinted at important changes in ARF. First, the group called for resumption of the six-party talks to devise a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis. ARF’s endorsement of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1695 of July 15, which condemned the July 5 missile tests and requires U.N. members to halt all dealings with Pyongyang with regard to its missile program, demonstrated a new readiness to demand action from members.

The willingness to defy North Korean threats — ARF is the only security institution that Pyongyang has joined outside of the U.N., and the North Korean representative threatened to withdraw after the resolution was passed — is a welcome indication of new toughness in ARF.

This new resolve was also on display when ARF took up Myanmar’s human rights record. ARF’s inclination to soft-pedal security issues is even more pronounced when dealing with ASEAN member states, as noninterference in domestic affairs is one of ASEAN’s founding principles. This creates real tensions when some governments such as Yangon persist in flouting international standards. ASEAN has maintained that its policy of “constructive engagement,” which helps shield Myanmar’s ruling junta from censure and isolation, is the best way to change that country’s reprehensible human rights policies.

This year, however, apparently ASEAN and ARF had had enough. The meeting’s final declaration called on Myanmar’s government to demonstrate “tangible progress that would lead to a peaceful transition to democracy in the near future,” and urged it to release political detainees, such as prodemocracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Although critics will not be happy with anything short of Myanmar’s expulsion from the group, the statement marked progress. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged that ASEAN made “an important evolution” with a statement that criticized one of its members.

Ms. Rice’s attendance at this year’s meeting is another indicator of ARF’s evolution. Her decision to skip last year’s meeting yielded criticism of America’s priorities as well as a warning that ARF members must deliver more than boilerplate denunciations of terrorism. Both sides seem to be responding to the need for cooperation.

ARF’s readiness to meet security challenges is becoming more important as other regional institutions take shape. ASEAN is determined to create a genuine “community” of nations, rather than just a geography-based association. It is complemented by the ASEAN-Plus-Three process, which is maturing and shaping a genuinely East Asian political unit.

ARF, along with the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, provides a broader Asia Pacific framework for cooperation, ensuring that both sides of the Pacific remain engaged with each other. This is a key element of ARF’s mission — and one that received a real boost last week.

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