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  • The ARF as a Strategic Waypoint: A Long View of the Forum’s 25-Year Journey
  • Maria Ortuoste (bio)

The survival of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is in and of itself an achievement, considering that many policymakers and scholars were initially skeptical about its viability and utility. The large power imbalance, conflicting national interests, and some countries’ unfamiliarity with multilateralism are usually cited as barriers to agreeing and acting on common security problems. Yet while it is significant that the ARF has endured for 25 years, “surviving is different from thriving.”1 Despite the optimism and efforts of some policymakers, the forum has not made significant progress in its three-stage development process.

This essay examines three challenges to enhancing the ARF’s role in regional security: geopolitical changes, a human security deficit, and ASEAN’s diminished leadership in the forum. The ARF needs to take more serious steps toward preventive diplomacy to moderate tensions in the region, prioritize human over state security in practical security cooperation activities, and contextualize ASEAN’s “centrality.”

The ARF as a Metaphorical Waypoint between Strategic Environments

Scholars differ over how the ARF can influence regional security. Realism considers state power as the primacy mechanism to ensure security, with international organizations only serving to amplify a state’s power or constrain other states. Neoliberalism sees the linkages built into the ARF as a means to promote cooperative security and secure some form of “minimum diffuse reciprocity”2 where the goal “is to reduce the probability that national power will be exercised to resolve conflicts.”3 Constructivists view the ARF as a “norm brewery” where rules and principles organically [End Page 53] develop4 and socialization leads to developing habits of consultation and cooperation.5 To study the evolution of the ARF, it is useful to consider the forum as a metaphorical waypoint between two strategic environments.

The ARF was established in 1994 during a critical juncture in international relations history—five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At that point, there were many perceived perils in the international environment. Would there be a power vacuum if the United States withdrew its forces in the Asia-Pacific? Who would fill that vacuum—Japan, China, or Australia? Was there a growing arms race in Asia? Would tensions between China and Taiwan, North Korea’s belligerence, or maritime disputes lead to regional destabilization? How could countries secure their economic gains? The ARF, therefore, could be considered a temporary stop on a geopolitical journey where the status quo based on U.S. superiority would be maintained. Since most of the ARF participants were U.S. allies, there was general support for this tacit goal; nevertheless, participants also recognized that China, Russia, and North Korea were dissatisfied with U.S. dominance and calling for a multipolar world order. Thus, they decided that the ARF would move at a pace comfortable to all participants and reach decisions via consensus.

Some participants viewed the ARF as an opportunity to build a regional security framework that is not solely based on alliances. The forum, after all, is the “most comprehensive security gathering in the world.” 6 ARF countries have not only a stake in but also the capability to transform regional security, as they account for more than three-quarters of the world’s GDP and military spending. To accommodate these hopes, the participants identified three stages of the ARF’s development—confidence building, preventive diplomacy, and conflict resolution—and held several intersessional meetings to identify specific activities and steps forward. Unfortunately, there was so little agreement on these specific steps that the ARF generated inadequate mechanisms to achieve two of its key objectives—one implicit, the other explicit.

The implicit objective was to socialize North Korea, China, and perhaps even Russia either as responsible neighbors or, in the case of the latter two countries, as responsible great powers. But that kind of internalization [End Page 54] would require a socialization process that was more intensive than the ARF was able to deliver at the time. Although the three countries did not have the capability to forcefully challenge the...


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