Singapore – The communiqué issued by the 12th Asean Regional Forum (ARF) at the end of their meeting in Vientiane, Laos, on July 29, seemed to be long on rhetoric and short on substance. It called on Myanmar's military junta to speed up the planned transition to party rule – a call that has been made many times before. It urged the international community to avoid identification of terrorism with any particular region, ethnic group or nationality – a plea that has been heard over and over again.
While critics will point to the communiqué as yet another evidence of the security forum being nothing more than a talk shop, a closer examination of the 25-member ARF suggests that it has actually played a useful role in promoting peace and security in East Asia.
In a commentary published in Singapore's The Straits Times, writer Khong Yuen Foong notes the mid-1990s "had more anxious moments than today".
"There were serious worries about the US retrenching from the region, Japan rearming, China's assertiveness (as in Mischief Reef and test-firing of missiles close to Taiwan), and potential conflict between the US and North Korea over the latter's nuclear ambitions. Prominent security analysts were predicting an arms race in the region, with Asia becoming the cockpit of great power rivalry," says Mr Khong, a Senior Research Adviser and Professor at Singapore's Institute of Defence & Strategic Studies.
But these worries have largely dissipated, partly due to the presence of the ARF. Following 911, the Forum has also been mobilised to cooperate on counter-terrorism measures such as interdicting terrorist financing and beefing up maritime security.
Mr Khong argues that the "most impressive achievement" of the ARF is the recent accessions by regional powers to Asean's non-aggression pact, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). The big powers who have signed the TAC are China, India, Japan, Russia and South Korea. Australia will also be signing the treaty soon to enable it to attend the inaugural East Asian Summit in Kuala Lumpur later this year.
"In other words, critics of the ARF are wrong to say that it is just a talk shop. Asean can now point to the number of signatories to the TAC to show one of the most tangible results of more than a decade of ‘jaw-jawing’.
"Habits of dialogue have been cultivated, comfort levels realised. The ARF has served a useful purpose by being the focal point of security-related initiatives inEast Asia," Mr Khong argues.
* Amity Treaty shows ARF not just talk shop (The Straits Times, July 29)
* There is a need to avoid identification of terrorism with religion (Bernama, July 29)
* Yangon urged to speed up shift to democracy (The Straits Times, July 30)