Monday 14 September 2009

The ASEAN regional forum is a dead-end, but so what?

I have recently been examining the reports and minutes from the ASEAN Regional Forum’s Inter-Sessional Group on Confidence Building and Preventative Diplomacy, the ISG-CBMs. This group is the litmus test of mutual trust in East Asia. More than that, it is window into the thinking of the members’ nations on the prospect of regional inter-state violence, up to and including, war.

While East Asia’s recent moves towards more and deeper regionalism, driven in part by uneasiness inspired by the Bush administration’s unilateralism and inattention to the region, would suggest a greater level of trust between the regional countries – the results of the ISG-CBMs are less than inspiring. Indeed, on reading what was being claimed as a CBM, I lost some confidence that Asia could learn from Europe and find its way to a true peace predicated on trust rather than a cold, or at least cool, peace based on the US hegemonic stabilizer and functional elite relations overlying popular fear and mistrust.

Indeed, the flurry of regionalism at the economic level is perhaps due in large part to the inability to achieve more difficult political cooperation. This should not be surprising. The rush towards Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) in East Asia is one such example. Greater political cooperation would envisage a single regional FTA, rather than the so-called “noodle bowl” (some say network, others hodge-podge) of bilateral trade agreements now crisscrossing the region. Likewise, I have already discussed trust in regional financial arrangements.

But returning to the ISG-CBMs, I will quote at length from the text of the 2009 report – at which the group discussed the future of the ARF.

“Thailand briefed the Meeting on the development of the draft ARF Vision Statement…Some delegations expressed their view that the Vision Statement should be a strong statement focusing on… concrete initiatives that ARF should undertake…[Other] members noted that the Vision Statement should [be]…a declaration of ARF principles and …not a plan of action.”

There was no agreement reached. Let me repeat, there was no agreement reached on the Vision Statement. That means, there is no shared Vision for the ARF. But with no shared vision there can be no future for the ARF, only an institutional dead-end. Indeed, the fact this is debate is still going on fifteen (15) years after the creation of the ARF, suggests that the ARF has been in arrested development for a while. But so what? Does it matter greatly the ARF has been unable to advance a vision, and in particular to advance its CBMs agenda?

Yes, it matters. The failure of the ARF (and specifically the ISG-CBMs) to progress military transparency in a manner similar to the Helsinki Accords of 1975 is arguably the most important factor driving the Japan into the arms of America, and in projecting itself into the regional by proposing and signing mini-lateral security agreements (such as with Australia and India). These closed shops will do nothing for the Chinese sense of national security; indeed, it is precisely this kind activity which feeds the regional security dilemma. Of course, Chinese resistance within the ARF was a factor no doubt in the inability of the ARF to engender habits of cooperation (ie diffuse reciprocity) and reach common political vision. But once another major regional player, such as Japan, defaults to closed-door, zero-sum type external balancing, then trust, and peace, become increasingly unlikely.

So yes, it matters.

No comments:

Post a Comment