After the fireworks at last year’s meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the big question at this year’s get-together was whether the United States and China would again clash over the South China Sea.

They did not. Instead, China and ASEAN defused the biggest issue — sovereignty over disputed territory in the South China Sea — by agreeing on new guidelines to handle those disputes. That left participants to applaud that success and focus on other regional security concerns.

Indeed, as ARF meetings go, this one was relatively successful. The test, as always, is the follow-up discussions.

Last year, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s statement of concern about tensions arising over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea sparked a confrontation between Washington and Beijing.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi responded by accusing the U.S. of meddling. More ominously, he added that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.” That statement crystallized other nations’ fears about China’s intentions.

Concerns were elevated more after Beijing’s ham-fisted handling of the September 2010 incident in which a Chinese fishing boat rammed two Japanese Coast Guard vessels while fishing in Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands.

Beijing’s subsequent demand that the U.S. and South Korea abstain from holding naval exercises in the Yellow Sea — the allies wanted to warn North Korea that its obnoxious behavior might have consequences — signaled that China was taking an expansive view of its sovereignty claims and was indifferent to the security concerns of other nations.

Chinese foreign policymakers seem to have discovered that they have undone several years of Chinese diplomacy.

As early as the January 2011 summit between President Hu Jintao and U.S. President Barack Obama, it was apparent that China was seeking common ground with the U.S. and playing down disputes.

That process continued, culminating in the agreement reached last week between China and ASEAN to establish new guidelines on implementing the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

Their new deal says that the parties will act in accordance with the 2002 agreement while working to draw up an accord and that disputes will be dealt with at the bilateral level by the countries directly involved; interference from outside countries is unwelcome.

The commitment to the creation of a code of conduct is valuable; all that currently exists is “a declaration on a Code of Conduct,” something that falls considerably short of a binding agreement.

The question now is whether this deal is a palliative designed to create a false sense of security and to distract attention from the refusal to create an agreement with teeth.

As Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto explained, the agreement is “a step forward,” but all nations with a stake in the freedom of navigation through the South China Sea and that favor the peaceful resolution of all such territorial disputes should press the parties to strike a real deal.

In the meantime, Japan should work with other nations to ensure that they are capable of enforcing their claims and are not cowed or intimidated by China.

A second important accomplishment of ARF was the meeting of South Korean and North Korean officials on the sidelines of the official conclave.

Contacts between the two countries have been almost nonexistent since Mr. Lee Myung Bak became president of South Korea and demanded, suspending previously agreed deals in the process, that the North honor its promises to denuclearize.

Furious, the North ended all official contact and engaged in a series of provocations, including sinking a South Korean navy ship and shelling a South Korean island, which together resulted in the deaths of more than 50 people.

After meeting for two hours, the foreign ministers of the North and South announced that they had agreed to work to resume the six-party talks that had been in recess since 2008. That is an important step forward, but as in the South China Sea case, agreement to move forward is not enough. There has to be actual progress.

It is encouraging to see that a North Korean official is in the U.S. for talks with American counterparts, but the U.S. position, like that of Japan and South Korea, is that talks have to have a purpose and that commitments once made, such as agreeing to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, cannot be discarded as Pyongyang pleases.

All too often, ARF is dismissed as a talk shop that does not address regional security issues. Given the disparate interests of the participants, it is probably asking too much to expect ARF to “solve” pressing concerns.

But it can serve as a venue at which the parties can discuss their perspectives and provide a diplomatic fig leaf for the sidebar conferences at which progress can be made. ARF provides a means for engagement and a focal point for diplomacy.

China may not be happy about it, but last year’s meeting was a catalyst for marshaling diplomatic resources to address long-standing security concerns. That makes ARF a success.

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