Aggressive, unrelenting China dominates ARF Summit

The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) concluded its meeting at Myanmar’s capital of Naypyidaw on August 9-10, 2014.

 One core objective of the forum included fostering dialogue and consultation in the region and promoting confidence-building preventive diplomacy. This year’s meeting took place amid impending threats from North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions and firing of missiles close to Japan and South Korea, and growing territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. 

The ARF is a formal, multilateral dialogue in the Asia-Pacific region consisting of 27 participating countries and acts as a regional security forum. The meeting at Naypyidaw represented a significant opportunity for the entire Asia-Pacific to discuss issues of mutual interest and identify opportunities for cooperation and the management of tension. The ARF draws senior officials from a wide variety of nations across the Asia-Pacific, including the ten members of the ASEAN, plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. The forum is also a rare opportunity to have North Korea’s presence.

Representing the US in the lead up to the ARF, Secretary of State John Kerry co-chaired the ASEAN-US Ministerial Meeting as well as two meetings aimed at enhancing environmental protection, health, education, and infrastructure development in the Lower Mekong.  The meeting discussed several key issues impacting regional dynamics, including maritime security and sovereignty disputes in the South and East China Seas, cyber security, and nuclear non-proliferation, in particular the recent missile launch and rocket firing by North Korea.  The meeting at Naypyidaw took place against the backdrop of ASEAN’s preparations to launch its integrated economic community in 2015, which would ease tensions on trade and labour across borders. The push for such a community is because the region’s economies are market-driven but at the same time division on contentious political issues amongst the ASEAN member-countries continue to exist.  As was expected, the South China Sea was high on the agenda. In fact, China’s temporary positioning this year of an oil platform in waters also claimed by Vietnam further exacerbated tension in the region. In view of China’s massive military strength, one would have expected that Beijing exercise restraint, lest its moves would send message of intimidation to the weaker neighbours. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.

None of the countries having claims are prepared to surrender an inch of the areas they claim as their own. Therefore, so long as historical legacies remain, progress on resolution of disputes will remain slow. The problem is compounded because the nations in the region are suspicious of the other parties’ intent and lack trust. The sense of insecurity is increased as China enhances its military capability and shows intent to project power. The many decades of turmoil during the colonial period and later during the cold war has stiffened the positions of many nations with no sign of flexibility.    
 Look East policy

Ever since then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao launched India’s Look East policy in the early 1990s, successive governments have pursued the same engagement strategy with the region with a view to integrate India’s economy with the world and reaching out to the ASEAN corridor has been the first step. The Modi government has too been pursuing the same policy, while at the same time strengthening India’s neighbourhood policy. 

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj represented India at the ARF. Seeking to deepen ties with the ASEAN, the Modi government has initiated measures to draft a five-year action plan starting in 2016 to take the “trajectories” of common interests with the 10-member grouping to a new level. The main focus of this plan is to improve connectivity in the region and boost trade and people-to-people contact. The region has had maritime relations for centuries and the Modi government’s policy is appropriate in invigorating the old ties as they are more relevant today than ever before. Promoting cultural diplomacy is another step to bring the peoples of the region together. 

In her first engagement at multilateral fora, Sushma Swaraj assured India’s commitment to take the “trajectories” of common interests higher in the coming years, “both in terms of achievement and relevance” to India’s ties with the ASEAN and also “in terms of the multilateral ambition at the regional and global levels”. Such an action plan shall complement with the organisation’s goal of forming the ASEAN Economic Community by 2015 and a move forward to fulfilling people’s aspiration of growth and development. While addressing the 12th India-ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting, Sushma Swaraj suggested that India, Myanmar and Thailand begin negotiations on a Transit Transport Agreement “at the earliest so that this can be concluded by the time the Trilateral Highway completes in 2016.”

India has always stressed connectivity as an important move in its economic engagement strategy with the ASEAN nations. In this, Myanmar as the only member of the ASEAN grouping which shares border with India has an important role to play. Pitching strongly for improvement in connectivity, Sushma Swaraj emphasised that India wanted connectivity in all its dimensions – geographic, institutional and people-to-people. She referred to 5Ts of government of India – Tradition, Talent, Tourism, Trade and Technology, and reiterated the value of a 'C' before them all in foreign policy – the 'C' of connectivity in all its dimensions, geographic, institutional and people-to-people.

Seen from a larger perspective, security issue remained the core of the discourse. China’s assertive stance in the South China Sea and North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme were the highlights of the discussion. It was agreed to make efforts to settle the existing disputes “in accordance with international law by peaceful means”. This is the only acceptable route to safeguard the interests of all the countries. 

(The writer is the Japan Foundation Fellow at the Reitaku University, Chiba, Japan)

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