18th ASEAN Regional Forum in Bali, Indonesia

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the foreign ministers and senior officials from 27 countries met in Bali, Indonesia, from July 16 to 28 for the 18th ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and Post-Ministerial meetings.

The ARF, established in 1994, is an annual multilateral dialogue convened by ASEAN that has become the primary forum for security dialogue in the Asia Pacific. The ARF is now complemented by the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+) and the East Asia Summit (EAS), which focus on security concerns in the Asia Pacific.

This year, the ARF was chaired by Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa of Indonesia. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea, concerns about North Korea and its nuclear weapons, and human rights abuses and the lack of movement toward more political inclusiveness in Burma were on the table. Now that the United States and Russia have joined the EAS and presidents of those two countries will participate for the first time in the EAS leaders meeting in Bali in November, the ARF has begun to evolve from a consultative and nonbinding discussion to a de facto ministerial meeting preparing the agenda for the EAS meeting. In fact, as regional security architecture develops in the Asia Pacific, it is possible that the ADMM+ will begin to play a similar ministerial role for defense ministers leading up to the EAS.

Q1: Why is the ARF important to the United States?

A1: Secretary of State Clinton has clearly indicated that the United States is pursuing a strategy based on strong regional institutions in the Asia Pacific. She has said that ASEAN is the “fulcrum” of the evolving regional security architecture and has made attending the annual ARF meeting a priority and participated in every meeting during her tenure. President Barack Obama and former secretary of defense Robert Gates have also signaled that the center of gravity for U.S. global security concerns has shifted from the Middle East and South Asia to the Asia Pacific (using a definition of the Asia Pacific that includes India). For the United States to project global power in the twenty-first century, it must be a central player in developing the new security infrastructure in the Asia Pacific. Discussions at the ARF have evolved over time and in recent years, under the chairmanship of Vietnam and Indonesia, have addressed the most pressing issues of the day, even those that are sensitive. This has made the ARF more relevant, and its annual meeting now plays a fundamental role in setting the agenda for the EAS leaders’ dialogue.

Q2: What were the main issues discussed at ARF this year?

A2: Key issues included regional maritime security, such as the South China Sea disputes, concerns about North Korea’s intentions and nuclear program, and political and security developments in Burma.
Last year at the 17th ARF meeting in Hanoi, Secretary Clinton made a forceful statement about U.S. interests in seeing the territorial disputes in the South China Sea resolved through peaceful means, multilateral forums when involving more than two countries, and through the appropriate channels of international law. Clinton said the United States was an interested party in the sea-lanes in the South China Sea, routes that transport nearly half of global trade and are vital for military transportation. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi of China reacted angrily before storming out of the meeting in Hanoi.

This year’s narrative was markedly different as extensive U.S.-China discussions ahead of the meetings resulted in a more cooperative tone among all parties. The Chinese apparently recognized, at least in the near term, that their assertiveness on sovereignty claims in the South China Sea was undercutting their own national security policies, including maintaining friendly relations with their neighbors. Many ASEAN countries’ anxieties about a powerful and nearby China asserting its interests and using economic leverage to achieve its strategic and sovereign goals were triggered by China’s actions over the last two years. China may have stepped back from that position and demonstrated goodwill by agreeing to an eight-point understanding identifying steps to move from the Declaration of a Code (DOC) to a Code of Conduct (COC) with ASEAN in dealing with territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said the guidelines would go a “long way [to help] peace and stability in the region.” Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell said that the United States believed the guidelines were only a first step and that more discussions need to be held among the United States, China, and ASEAN.

Q3: What were U.S. priorities at the ARF?

A3: First, Secretary Clinton has understood the importance of showing up at the meetings. The continued presence of the secretary of state provides needed reassurances for Asia-Pacific countries that the United States is engaged and will sustain its presence in the region.
Second, the United States hopes to bolster Indonesia’s confidence to step up its role as ASEAN chair and be willing to table sensitive issues, including those in Northeast Asia, which must be addressed to ensure regional peace and security.

Third, the United States sees logic to regional security discussions now taking place in the ARF and the ADMM+ eventually setting the agenda for the region’s leaders when they meet at the EAS. The United States wants to ensure that the EAS is a substantive meeting where leaders can engage directly, discuss the vital issues of the day, and build relationships and mutual confidence. U.S. officials hope to avoid scripted and stiff exchanges that serve merely to reiterate positions and do not help to find solutions to the tough challenges ahead as security structures for the fastest growing region of the world are created.

Q4: What other highlights occurred at the ARF meeting?

A4: First, it was symbolically significant that Secretary Clinton arrived in Bali after a trip to India where she urged New Delhi to be more assertive in Asia. The United States and other partners understand that an enduring regional structure must have India fully engaged as an Asia-Pacific country. That commitment does not seem to have been fully adopted by India yet.

Second, Secretary Clinton delivered a statement reasserting the U.S. “strategic stake” in the waterways of the South China Sea and stressed the principles articulated in last year’s forum in Hanoi, including “freedom of navigation, unimpeded legal commerce, and the maintenance of peace and stability.”

Finally, the ARF provided a venue for the United States to conduct multilateral and bilateral dialogues with other countries on the sidelines. One highlight of these dialogues was the U.S.–South Korea–Japan joint statements on North Korean nuclear proliferation. Secretary Clinton said that the United States was encouraged by the meetings of the two Koreas and added that the United States would insist that, “in order for six-party talks to resume, North Korea must take steps to improve North-South relations and ‘address’ its secretive uranium enrichment program.”

Q5: Were U.S.-Indonesia ties advanced during Secretary Clinton’s visit?

A5: Secretary Clinton began her tenure as secretary of state with an Asia trip that included Indonesia, signaling U.S. intent to enhance ties with the country that is ASEAN’s largest, by population and economic size, and is gradually returning to its earlier role as political leader of the region. The United States has followed through with Indonesia on plans to significantly broaden and deepen bilateral ties and anchor U.S. strategic interests in ASEAN, which it considers the center of enduring regional security architecture.
While Secretary Clinton was in Bali attending the ARF meetings, she cochaired with Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa the second joint commission of the U.S.-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership. Clinton brought a large U.S. delegation representing many different departments and agencies ranging from trade to security and science and technology to aid. The two ministers reviewed the policy initiatives and priorities developed by the six Joint Commission Working Groups in the areas of democracy and civil society, education, climate and environment, trade and investment, security and energy.

Both sides pledged to strengthen the U.S.-Indonesia strategic dialogue on global and regional developments. They also supported efforts to conclude a Millennium Challenge Corporation compact that that would include an estimated $600 million for Indonesia over five years.

Ernest Bower is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Lie Nathanael Santoso is a researcher with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Ernest Z. Bower

Lie Nathanael Santoso