The ASEAN Regional Forum

The ASEAN Regional Forum

Author(s): Rodolfo C. Severino

ISBN: 978-9814279253

Publisher: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore (ISEAS)

Year: 2009

Price: $32.90

Reviewed by Julio S. Amador III, Foreign Affairs Research Specialist, Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies, Foreign Service Institute, the Philippines.

The ASEAN Regional Forum is another of the prodigious output by Rodolfo C. Severino, former ASEAN Secretary-General. He was also a former ASEAN Senior Official for the Philippines and was involved in the establishment of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Severino is also one of the registed Expert and Eminent Person (EEP) for the Philippines. This book is enriched by his experience in ASEAN and ARF matters during his career in the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs and his tenure in the ASEAN Secretariat as its head.

The book is intended, according to Severino, to “establish certain facts about the ARF in some detail, so as to illuminate its true character and what it can and cannot do, its potential and its limitations…” (p. xi). While its subject matter’s ‘true’ character is up for debate, the book itself contains a wealth of information about the ARF. This ranges from serious matters such as the realization that it could not have been possible to establish an Asia Pacific-wide security forum without the presence of China, Russia or Vietnam, to the trivial such as the European Union’s three different representatives having only one official seat but being allowed to pull their chairs towards the conference table during the start of meetings.

Severino’s book is divided into seven chapters. Each chapter is an interesting read in itself. Severino followed a historical and issue-based approach in writing about the ARF. The first chapter is devoted to an explanation of the beginnings of the ARF from its humble start in ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conferences. It contains an examination of the security environment during those periods and ends with a discussion of the shaping of the ARF’s nature. This is where the evolution of the ARF was planned in three stages, from confidence building to preventive diplomacy and culminating in conflict resolution among participants.

Chapter two, which is quite short, is devoted to the reasons for joining the ARF. Here, Severino explains the history of membership and the criteria for participation. Some selected states’ participation history was discussed. The chapter ends with a discussion on ARF participation and the fear that its size and inclusiveness makes it unwieldy for discussing regional security.

Severino devoted chapter three to answering if indeed the ARF builds confidence. Here, Severino discussed the problems and prospects of moving from confidence-building to preventive diplomacy noting that participants have differing definitions of what the latter is. ASEAN’s role in the ARF was also discussed in this chapter with Severino laying out the debate on whether ASEAN deserves to lead the ARF. It seems Severino’s opinion is that ASEAN may lead effectively only in non-traditional security issues. The chapter also contains a discussion on how the ARF promotes transparency, networking and cooperation among participants including the production of an Annual Security Outlook. The chapter ends with Severino’s difficulty in finding an answer to the original question. Instead, he equivocates by stating that the “..answer lies in the perception of individual participants and is therefore, difficult to discern in the short term.” (p. 48).

Chapter four is devoted to another question: diplomacy to prevent what? Severino first lays out the debate on the pros and cons of the preventive diplomacy debate. There are stakeholders who see preventive diplomacy as only applicable to inter-state relations while there are others who argue that intra-state instability should be given attention by the ARF.  Severino then tells the story of the ARF’s move from considering purely traditional security issues to non-traditional security issues. The rest of the chapter discusses some institutional and organizational aspects of the ARF such as the role of the Chair and Expert and Eminent Persons (EEP). Severino’s prognosis is that ARF’s evolution will take time and a potential crisis as trigger might be necessary.

The fifth chapter is Severino’s attempt to dispel the notion that ARF is mostly a talkshop. He argues that this perception is due to mainstream media’s focus on world leaders rather than the mundane inter-sessional meetings (ISMs) that he believes contribute to networking and to some extent confidence building among states. He divides these ISMs into six: 1) arms control and management, 2) military cooperation, 3) essentially civilian endeavors that use mainly military assets and personnel and civil-military relations, 4) civilian undertakings not involving military assets that respond to non-traditional security threats, 5) exchange of security perceptions, and 6) the ARF process.

Chapter six focuses on the question of the ARF’s need for central institutions. Severino’s discussion of various viewpoints, while showing that there are strong arguments for central institutions that at least could function as an authoritative coordinator, gives way to his own argument that ARF should evolve “pragmatically, incrementally, informally and sector-specific”(p. 114). In short, it should do what it has been doing. Severino then repeats in detail his discussion on what currently serves as “institutions” in the ARF: the Chair and its friends and the EEP.  Severino also discusses ASEAN’s ARF Unit, the ARFNet and the ARF Fund all of which are administered by or through the ASEAN Secretariat. A section is given on cooperation with the UN as well as calls for subsidiary bodies to attend to humanitarian activities. Severino points out that sufficient convergence of national interests is necessary for creating regional institutions that are in turn, necessary if the ARF is to move beyond confidence building.

The seventh chapter is Severino’s attempt at assessing the ARF. Along with the scholars and practitioners that he cites, Severino wants the ARF to be judged on its own terms. For him, the ARF’s inclusion of all major powers is a significant enough achievement. This inclusiveness is credited with providing stability for the Asia Pacific. Severino is not affected by criticisms of irrelevance and the prospect of the ARF’s disappearance. On the contrary, he believes that any other forum that will contribute to preventing conflicts is beneficial to the region. Finally, any talk of disappearance presupposes guaranteed regional security, which Severino calls an ideal situation whose time is not yet upon the region.

The ASEAN Regional Forum’s main strength is its readability, which is something one would expect from Severino. He tends to write for a general audience who might not have exposure to ARF jargon nor in-depth knowledge of the complex nature of the East Asian security environment. At the same time, the essence of what he wants to convey about the ARF is not lost. The book distills for the busy reader the main facts, debates and issues revolving around the ARF. Severino’s familiarity with ARF’s history, processes and issues is well-reflected in the book making it both a reliable source of information and a good jumping point for critical analysis.

Severino’s book is notable for its lucidity, pragmatism and realism. He does not hesitate to include divergent opinions different from his own in his examination of facts and issues surrounding the ARF. At the same time, he is pragmatic enough to understand that calls for the ARF’s reforms are grounded on reality, although from the book, he does not seem to share the urgency required by the critics. Severino is also realistic in his argument that a forum as large as the ARF cannot change overnight. It is lead by a core group composed of participant-states which are not economically powerful and politcally influential. It has participants which are the major powers of today’s political and security environment who have differing perceptions of the security environment. It is also captive to the varying strategic interests of participants. It also exists in a region where there are a lot of conflict flashpoints. In short, the ARF exists in a complex and multi-layered environment not easily susceptible to radical reform.

The end sections of the book contain various documents and instrumentalities that are part of the ARF’s history. This serves as a helpful reference for researchers and readers who can immediately refer to particular documents mentioned in the main text. Severino evidently spent time reading through various scholarly materials and interviewing intellectuals and practitioners in the ARF. This adds further solidity to an introductory book on a complex and specialized topic as the ARF.

The general weakness of the book is that it sometimes suffers from Severino’s blind spots for the institutions which he has served such as his obvious preference for foreign ministry officials to run ARF matters when his own analysis indicates that defense officials and other analysts have shown the need for greater cooperation between and among defense ministries and ministers especially on security issues which are in their competence (chap 3). Severino also has a propensity to liberally quote other authors to emphasize his point but the arguments he personally made could have been improved if he also provided his own take on these viewpoints as it is not clear if he holds the same views.

The book at times becomes tendentious and leaves the reader wondering whether it is a commissioned apologia for the ARF’s shortcomings or part of Severino’s personal instrospection. One minor quibble that will hopefully be corrected is the need for a page which summarizes the different abbreviations and acronyms. There have been times when even those who have been long-time observers and participants in ASEAN-related matters have found themselves lost in the alphabet soup which ASEAN tends to create in its institutions and processes. It would greatly help first-time readers of the book.

Overall, the book is a very good introduction and overview of the ARF because of the richness in detail and its excellent prose. Its penetrating insight on the politics of state relations in the ARF will make it a welcome read for statemen, scholars and students of international relations. If the reader finds the book apologetic in tone, it can just be attributed as an occupational hazard on the part of Severino.