The critical role of the ASEAN Regional Forum in building co-operation and trust

#CriticalThinking

Asia

Picture of Blake H. Berger
Blake H. Berger

As the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) reaches its 22nd Anniversary, questions from policymakers and academics alike over its relevance and the common critique of the forum being nothing more than a “talk shop” have persisted since its establishment. While it is acknowledged that security issues persist in East and Southeast Asia, for example over the South China Sea, it is undeniable that the ARF not only remains a relevant and important regional security forum but has had a positive impact in facilitating substantial co-operation between states. When the ARF was founded in 1994, its primary mandate was to alleviate the strategic uncertainties arising from a new post-Cold War security environment by providing an avenue to achieve peace through dialogue and mutual trust. The ARF has not only lived up to its original mandate but has bolstered interstate co-operation and helped contribute to a more secure regional security landscape; a prime example of this can be seen in the area of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR).

The forum’s membership and range of activities have expanded significantly over time. Originally comprised of what were then the six Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members and 12 of ASEAN’s partners, including the US, EU, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia, the ARF has since expanded to 27 members, including Pakistan and North Korea. Following its establishment, the ARF’s activities were primary limited to developing confidence building measures (CBM), organising meetings between defence ministers and representatives, and examining possible future areas of co-operation. Since the 21st ARF meeting, the range of activities encompasses a much wider scope, including counter terrorism, cyber security, HADR, transnational crime and drug trafficking, non-proliferation and disarmament, maritime environmental protection and maritime security.

The ARF has contributed to a more secure regional security landscape

While the expansion of activities highlights the increasing receptiveness to working together amongst ARF members, some of the most significant and practical co-operation has been in HADR. Humanitarian assistance had long been on the ARF agenda, but it was only following the 2004 tsunami that HADR co-operation became a key priority. As the Asia-Pacific is one of the most natural disaster-prone regions in the world, the ARF has developed into the fulcrum of HADR operations in the Asia-Pacific and has enabled significant military-to-military and civilian-to-military co-operation. Supplementing the elevated interstate relations, the ARF has additionally provided an arena for international organisations, such as the United Nations (UN) and World Health Organisation (WHO), to develop relationships and interoperability with ARF members.

In response to the devastating earthquake in Indonesia in 2006, the ARF began developing and organising a series of HADR joint operations and co-operation frameworks, culminating in the first HADR Desktop Exercise co-hosted by Indonesia and Australia in 2008. The exercise scenario was framed around a fictitious country severely impacted by natural disaster, in which the goal of the exercise was to improve co-operation for if and when a multilateral response became necessary. Following that exercise, four ARF Disaster Relief Exercises (ARF DiREx) were held in 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015. As an example of the expansive co-operation, the 2015 ARF DiREx, co-hosted by Malaysia and China in May, brought together over 3,000 participants, 21 ARF members, including the US, Japan, South Korea, Russia and India, and eight international and regional organisations. The exercise included field-training exercises, such as search and rescue operations, mass evacuations, and the handling of chemical spills. Supplementing the ARF HADR exercises, the forum has also contributed to the establishment of regional disaster relief centres in Southeast Asia, such as the Jakarta-based ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA) and the Singapore-based Changi Regional HADR Coordination Centre (RHCC).

The significant benefits of enhanced co-operation were demonstrated following the deadly earthquakes in Nepal this year, in which Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, and Thailand in collaboration with the RHCC promptly sent out a multinational team to Nepal to assist the disaster relief efforts. These joint initiatives not only indicate an elevation of mutual trust, but also bolstered confidence and interoperability between nations, their militaries and civilian apparatuses.

The ARF has not only provided an arena to develop mutual trust through CBMs and dialogue, but has also had a profound impact on furthering civilian-to-military co-operation and military-to-military interoperability. While the ARF may not be able to directly solve some regional security issues, the forum has played a critical role in enhancing co-operation and trust, has contributed to a more secure regional security landscape, and should continue to engage in HADR activities to further strengthen member state co-operation.

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