“ASEAN Convenes High-Level Security Talks Amidst Regional Uncertainties” by Jason Salim and Tang Siew Mun

2017/45, 2 August 2017

The 50th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) and related meetings begin today (2nd August), and will culminate six days later in the Grand Commemorative Celebration of ASEAN’s 50th anniversary, coinciding with ASEAN’s founding day on 8 August. However, the meetings to mark this momentous milestone in ASEAN’s history are likely to be overshadowed by events, circumstances and personalities beyond its shores. The spotlight will be on the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting taking place at the sidelines of the AMM. The ARF brings together 17 countries besides the ASEAN-10, and puts countries like the US, China, India and Pakistan as well as North and South Korea on the same awkward table. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expected to attend the ARF in his first official visit to Southeast Asia. The visit will be closely scrutinised in the wake of deteriorating Sino-US relations, with Tillerson expected to give a clearer indication of the US’ Asia policy, especially with regards to the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula.

Impaired Sino-US relations as well as the recent ballistic missile tests by North Korea will inevitably bring the Korean Peninsula nuclear crisis to the forefront of the ARF meeting. Even though the US is pressuring China to provide leadership on the matter, the ARF is not expected to accomplish much on this intractable subject. This is because the ARF has always operated on the basis of consensus, and it is more a forum for confidence-building, not conflict resolution. The true value of the ARF lies in its facilitation of “behind-the-scenes” meetings on the sidelines of the Forum, allowing participants to discuss sensitive subjects away from the glare of public attention.

Changes to the Sino-US dynamics, if any, will be on full display in this year’s ARF. It was in the 2010 ARF meeting that then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech kicked off a political storm and redefined Sino-US ties. Chinese President Xi Jinping recently declared at events commemorating the 90th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army that China will not “swallow the bitter fruit of damage to our sovereignty, security and development interests.” This strident remark clearly demonstrates China’s political will to use its enormous military strength to further its national interests, and will be the elephant in the room at the ARF meeting.

The stakes are also much higher for the European Union (EU), as the ARF remains the only substantive security forum of which it is a full member. Although it has been invited, together with Canada, to attend this year’s East Asia Summit as guests of the Philippines as ASEAN chair, the moratorium for new EAS members dating back to 2011 is still in place. The ARF therefore is one of the few “proofing ground” for the EU to convince ASEAN that Brussels’ interest in Asia-Pacific security is sustainable and substantive, and that it should be regarded as an important player in ASEAN’s journey as both regional organisations celebrate 40 years of dialogue relations.

A pressing agenda for ASEAN as it walks into the AMM and related meetings will be to assess the fluctuating geo-strategic landscape. The US has swung from its initial disinterest in the region in the early days of the Trump Administration to potentially becoming trigger-happy as it seriously considers military action in the Korean Peninsula. This is coupled with a China ready at any moment to showcase its military might and deploy its assets in order to achieve its national interest. The meetings would therefore be an opportune moment for ASEAN to register its concerns with the unstable major power dynamics dominating the regional geopolitical chessboard, and hopefully abate uncertainties among external players in the interest of regional stability.

Mr Jason Salim and Dr Tang Siew Mun are respectively Research Officer and Head of the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

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