On July 23, 2010, the 17th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum was held in Hanoi, Vietnam. The only official multilateral security dialogue in the Asia-Pacific region, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) has been condemned as a "talk-shop," but this year it discussed many sensitive and tough international and regional issues.
ARF has grown in significance and scale since its inception. Established in 1994, ARF has 27 members – 10 from ASEAN member countries, 10 ASEAN partners and seven observers. The members bring a variety of perspectives because they have different political systems, levels of economic development, cultural identities and strategic objectives.
The Korean Peninsula security problem remained an important issue in the agenda of ARF. Since its establishment, all the previous statements initiated by ARF have shown concern about the intricate situation on the Korean peninsula. Since accession to ARF, the North Korea sent its foreign minister to participate in ARF for the first time. Thus, ARF becomes another important channel to talk about the security situation on the Korean peninsula.
Since the March 26 sinking of Cheonan, a South Korean warship, the North and South have each stuck to its own argument and are in a fierce struggle. The recent US-South Korean joint military exercise in the Sea of Japan has exacerbated the security situation in Northeast Asia.
Adding to the tension in the area, in June, a Myanmar exile group disclosed that Myanmar sought to develop a secret nuclear program. Considering the sensitivity and danger of nuclear proliferation, the international community expressed grave concern about Myanmar's nuclear program. Myanmar officials have repeatedly said Myanmar is a member of the "Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty" and its additional protocol. Additionally, in accordance with the seven-step roadmap to democratic election, Myanmar is to hold a general election this autumn. The ARF called Myanmar to implement a "free, fair and inclusive" election.
Overall, the ARF is concerned about the regional security of East Asia. In recent years, the parties have recognized that consultation and cooperation can enhance mutual security trust and is the only way to solve the security issues. War and conflict only complicate matters. When dealing with non-traditional security issues, such as piracy, terrorism, environmental protection, drug trafficking and smuggling, the ARF has made a great contribution.
The ARF is still building confidence among its participants. There are many differences in the definition and practice of preventive diplomacy between East Asian countries and Western countries. Two fundamental principles of the ARF are non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries and a consensus to resolve regional security issues the "ASEAN way." Therefore, even though ARF discusses many sensitive issues, it only provides policy proposals to improve security and calm the situation.
The ARF has no intentions of interfering with the situation on the Korean peninsula. The ARF only expressed concern about the sinking of Cheonan, supported the Statement of the United Nations Security Council about it and called for the involved parties to keep restraint and resolve the disputes peacefully.
When the details of how Cheonan sank were still unclear, the United Nations Security Council issued a statement on July 9 that condemned the attack but did not name a responsible party. Singapore's foreign minister George Yeo said ASEAN was not likely to condemn North Korea for the incident.
The ARF also can't or won't condemn Myanmar. Some ASEAN countries clearly oppose interference in Myanmar's internal general election, saying it might trample ASEAN's principle of non-interference in internal affairs of other countries.
The ASEAN defense ministers will hold a forum with defense ministers from China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and the U.S. This could facilitate regional security cooperation, enhance mutual trust among regional and global powers and enhance regional stability and world peace.
If ASEAN can successfully lead the discussion among regional and global powers in the ARF, ASEAN will become the world's major regional actor. However, there are many concerns. As a complex set of ten small and medium countries, ASEAN still lacks experience in integrating and balancing external powers. If ASEAN cannot display the superiorities and advantages and dominate agendas and processes of related forums it presides, it will become the biggest victim of the power struggles.