Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Background Briefing: ASEAN Regional Forum Scene

Background Briefing:
ASEAN Regional Forum Scene
Carlyle A. Thayer
August 1, 2017
We request a background scene setter on the ASEAN Regional Forum and related
meetings to be held later this week in Manila.
We request your assessment of the following issues:
Q1. The South China Sea issue seems to have taken a backseat under the Philippines'
chairmanship of ASEAN. How do you see the issue being discussed at the ARF this time
with Manila bent on setting aside the Arbitral Tribunal's ruling and talking with Beijing
about joint exploration in the sea? Vietnam, I understand, has also been intimidated
by China into withdrawing from a drilling operation.
ANSWER: It is important to recognize that the ASEAN Regional Forum is a foreign
ministers-led regional security dialogue, no more and no less. It operates on the basis
of consensus, so contentious issues are not addressed directly. China moves
diplomatic heaven and earth to ensure no statement is issued that it objects to.
The ARF undertakes activities of a practical nature but it does not deal directly with
South China Sea disputes. The Foreign Ministers invariably will address the South
China Sea in general terms.
Last year at the 23rd ARF meeting in Vientiane, the ARF statement reproduced the
standard ASEAN formulation: “Several Ministers remain seriously concerned over
recent and ongoing developments and the Ministers took note of the concerns
expressed by some Ministers on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in
the South China Sea, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and
may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”
Last year the ASEAN Summit held in Manila with the Philippines as Chair reduced the
eight-paragraph statement on the South China Sea adopted in 2015 to two
paragraphs. The 2016 statement noted blandly, “we took note of concerns expressed
by some Leaders over recent developments in the area” rather than “serious
concerns” noted previously. There was no mention of the Arbitral Tribunal’s Award
although paragraph seven called for the peaceful settlement of disputes “including full
respect for legal and diplomatic processes.” I expect a similar watering down under
the Philippines as chair this month.
Q2. ASEAN foreign ministers are expected to endorse a framework for the Code of
Conduct negotiations agreed earlier by their senior officials. This framework has been
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publicly displayed as an accomplishment. How important is this framework? Or will
China still dictate the terms of any such Code despite such a framework?
ANSWER: I think it is a foregone conclusion that ASEAN foreign ministers will endorse
the draft Framework on the Code of Conduct drawn up by senior officials as a matter
of course. China met its promise to reach agreement on this draft by the middle of
2017. The way is now set for the next stage, consultations (not negotiations) between
China and ASEAN’s ten-member states on a COC.
There are four substantive issues that need to be resolved.
First, the current draft Framework on the COC does not mention the geographic area
of coverage. China insists that the COC should only apply to the waters around the
Spratly islands and that Scarborough Shoal and the Paracel islands be excluded.
The second issue to be resolved concerns enforcement. ASEAN wants the COC to be
legally binding. China opposes this.
The third and related issue concerns how the COC is to be adopted. China proposes
that the COC be signed by all eleven foreign ministers. ASEAN would like to see the
COC ratified by national legislatures to make it legally binding.
Fourth there are a number of technical issues that need to be addressed including how
to resolve differences over interpreting the COC and how to resolve actual disputes
and incidents at sea.
Long ago China and the ASEAN member states agreed that the 2002 Declaration on
Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) must be fully implemented before
agreeing on the COC. The DOC set out five areas for cooperation but not one project
has commenced. In addition, all parties have agreed to move ahead on the basis of
consensus. Consultations on the COC are likely to be protracted and China will not
agree to the inclusion of points that go against its interests. All ASEAN members can
do is engage China in dialogue.
Q3. North Korea seems to be a top priority issue for the US administration especially
after its recent missile tests. Do you see the North Korea issue as a key agenda item at
the ARF? How do you think it should be approached? One diplomatic source told me
that the US tried to sound out ASEAN about expelling North Korea from ARF but didn't
gain enough support. Is it better for North Korea to be inside ARF or outside or does
it really matter?
ANSWER: North Korea will undoubtedly top the agendas at the ARF and ASEAN
ministerial meetings. ASEAN will take the middle road and urge North Korea, South
Korea and the United States to settle the matter peacefully. China and Russia have
drawn their lines in the sand not to impose further sanctions. Both oppose the use of
The US has been urging ASEAN members to reduce the size of North Korean embassy
staff in their capitals, to end programs under which North Koreans work in Southeast
Asia, and cut off sales and currency transactions that support North Korea’s missile
program. The Philippines and Malaysia are a particular focus for the US.
ASEAN will never agree to expel North Kores because one of ASEAN’s articles of faith
is inclusive dialogue and moving forward at a pace comfortable to all. Of course, ARF
ministers will express their concern about nuclear proliferation on the Korean
peninsula and call on Pyongyang to implement UN Security Council resolutions. Some
members of ASEAN have been canvassing whether the association can play the role
of peace broker.
Q4. With fighting still going on in a pocket of Marawi in the southern Philippines, how
do you think the issue of terrorism should be approached at this year's ARF, especially
with the presence of ISIS foreign fighters?
ANSWER: The ARF got a new lease of life after the Bali bombings in Indonesia in
October 2002. This spurred increased regional coordination through a new
Intersessional Meeting on Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime. The ARF will
add the new issue of returned Islamic State fighters to its agenda and endorse regional
initiatives, such as those recently agreed between Australia and Indonesia. The ARF
can only promote cooperation between regional law enforcement and intelligence
agencies and endorse specific activities related to training and information sharing.
The ARF does not have any standing counter-terrorism forces that can be deployed.
Background: 23rd ARF Meeting, Vientiane, July 26, 2017
8. The Ministers shared concern over current developments in the Korean Peninsula,
including the nuclear test on 6 January 2016, rocket launch on 7 February 2016 and
ballistic missile launch on 9 July 2016, by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
(DPRK) which are in violation of the UNSC resolutions. The Ministers reaffirmed the
importance of peace and security in this region and reiterated ASEAN’s support for
the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner. Most Ministers
also urged the DPRK to comply with all relevant UNSC resolutions, including the UNSC
Resolution 2270 and called on all parties to exert common efforts to maintain peace
and security in the said region and create an environment conducive to the early
resumption of the Six-Party Talks to make further progress in denuclearization of the
Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner. The Ministers stressed the importance of
addressing humanitarian concerns.
9. The Ministers exchanged views on maritime issues and reaffirmed the importance
of maintaining and promoting peace, security and stability, safety and freedom of
navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea. Several Ministers remain
seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments and the Ministers took
note of the concerns expressed by some Ministers on the land reclamations and
escalation of activities in the South China Sea, which have eroded trust and
confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the
region. The Ministers reaffirmed the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence,
exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may further
complicate the situation and pursue peaceful resolution of disputes by parties
concerned in accordance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations
Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Ministers noted the commitment of
the ASEAN Member States and China to ensure the full and effective .
11. The Ministers condemned the recent heinous terrorist attacks in various regions
including Baghdad, Pathankot, Kabul, Dhaka, Nice, Istanbul, Brussels and Paris and the
continued violent and brutal terrorist acts of the self-proclaimed Islamic State
(IS)/Da’esh and extended their deepest condolences to the victims and their families.
They emphasised the need to counter the increasing terrorist activities and global
network as well as the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters. The Ministers
welcomed the Fifth Review of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy
and took note of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent
Violent Extremism. The Ministers called for a more coordinated and comprehensive
approach to countering terrorism and violent extremism, respect for diversity, peace
and moderation as a counter-narrative to violent extremism, including through the
promotion of religious tolerance and the Global Movement of Moderates. The
Ministers reaffirmed the importance of the full implementation of the ASEAN
Convention on Counter Terrorism, the ASEAN Comprehensive Plan of Action on
Counter Terrorism, and the relevant provisions of international law and the UN
Charter. The Ministers further resolved to work to limit the access of terrorist groups
to funding.
Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “ASEAN Regional Forum Scene Setter” Thayer
Consultancy Background Brief, August 1, 2017. All background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). To remove yourself from the mailing list type,
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.


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