Clinton, the ARF, and the U.S. “Rebalance” to Asia

This year’s ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) will be held July 12–13 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, amidst a week of regional summitry. The ARF is the Asia Pacific’s premier ministerial meeting to discuss political and security priorities. The 19th ARF, hosted by ASEAN chair Cambodia, will likely witness discussions and developments related to hot-button issues in the region ranging from tensions in the South China Sea to concerns about nuclear proliferation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will attend the meeting for the United States as part of the Southeast Asian leg of a larger eight-country trip. She will make stops in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia between July 10 and 14. U.S. objectives at the ARF and on Clinton’s trip include emphasizing economic engagement, assuaging Southeast Asian concerns about Sino-U.S. rivalry, addressing regional perceptions that the Obama administration’s “rebalance” to Asia may be too heavy on security issues, and laying to rest concerns about the sustainability of U.S. engagement in the region.

Q1: What is the ASEAN Regional Forum?

A1: The ARF is Asia’s premier annual forum to discuss political and security issues. Founded in 1994, its objectives are to foster constructive dialogue and consultation and contribute to confidence building and preventive diplomacy in the Asia Pacific.

The ARF is a key part of emerging ASEAN-based regional architecture. In many ways, the ARF may develop into a political and security ministerial with the purpose of feeding recommendations to the region’s leaders at the annual East Asia Summit (EAS). However, the ARF’s membership is more diverse than that of the EAS, so this political-security ministerial role is also being played by the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus.

ARF meetings are usually held in July with a host of other ASEAN-related meetings around the same time, including the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, the Post Ministerial Conference (PMC), and the EAS Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. This year, 27 countries will attend the ARF, which groups the 10 countries of Southeast Asia, the 10 ASEAN dialogue partners (which include the United States and China), and other nations ranging from North Korea to Sri Lanka to East Timor. Hor Namhong, Cambodia’s deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, will chair the meeting.

Q2: What is the ARF’s significance?

A2: The ARF faces a historic turning point; namely, whether it will continue to evolve and mature and accept the challenge of tabling the most important regional security issues of the day, or slip back toward its early years of avoiding confrontational issues in hopes of building regional confidence and a pattern of consensus building.

It is likely that the ARF will meet the challenge, which is critical for the success of the experiment with ASEAN-based regional architecture. Of late, the ARF has been dominated by discussions around territorial disputes between China and ASEAN states in the South China Sea and concerns about tensions between the United States and China. At the 2010 ARF, Secretary Clinton’s statement reasserting U.S. interests in preserving freedom of navigation and regional security with respect to the South China Sea was read as a show of solidarity with smaller ASEAN states and a rebuke to an increasingly assertive China with expansive claims in the disputed waters.

Q3: What issues are likely to be on the agenda for this year’s meeting?

A3: U.S.-China relations will likely be the elephant in the room. ASEAN states continue to be concerned that tensions between a United States “rebalancing” to Asia and a rising China will disrupt regional peace and stability and drag them into disputes. Both the United States and China are increasingly aware of this, and efforts are underway on both sides to mollify these concerns through cooperative measures announced in certain fields.

While Cambodia has been reluctant to formally place the South China Sea on the agenda of the ARF for fear of antagonizing China, Prime Minister Hun Sen directly asserted the importance of the issue in his remarks opening this week’s meetings in Phnom Penh. The issue may not be on the formal agenda as a concession to China, which works hard to avoid multilateralizing the issue; however, it will certainly be tabled by some of the ASEAN ministers. In the last three years, there have been at least 22 serious incidents in the South China Sea, most involving Chinese vessels in confrontations with Southeast Asian counterparts, especially the Philippines and Vietnam. Progress on a “code of conduct,” which ASEAN countries and China have been working on to ease tensions in disputed waters, will likely be discussed as pressure builds on all parties to work toward a negotiated settlement. The United States is expected to continue to play a quiet role in encouraging these constructive discussions.

Other regional issues will also be discussed either at the meeting or on the sidelines. Ministers will review progress made on further enhancing the ARF’s role in developing cooperative approaches to managing peace and security in the region. They are expected to adopt a work plan on nonproliferation and disarmament. The ARF will not, however, witness the signing of a deal by major nuclear powers to keep the region nuclear free, a concept first concretized when the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone treaty entered into force in 1997. That agreement was expected to be signed by the five recognized nuclear states—China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States—but all five have expressed reservations about some of the technical language.

The European Union and the United Kingdom will sign agreements related to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, a nonaggression pact first inked by ASEAN countries in 1976. Participants can be expected to talk about how to better address natural disasters, including through increased contributions to the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Management. North Korea will likely come up in discussions as well, and there may also be separate bilateral meetings between North Korea and South Korea, or North Korea and the United States, on how to reopen the Six-Party Talks, which remain frozen.

Q4: Are there other events and developments to watch out for during Secretary Clinton’s trip?

A4: Attending the ARF is only part of Clinton’s broader trip to Asia and the Middle East, which will include several other engagements in Southeast Asia. She will visit Cambodia, as well as Laos and Vietnam. The trip bolsters Clinton’s standing as the most-traveled secretary of state in U.S. history, having already visited 100 countries in her official role. This is also likely to be her last trip to Southeast Asia as secretary. Clinton started her term at the State Department with a trip that featured Southeast Asia, including a visit to the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. That was an important and early indication of her strategy of putting ASEAN at the center of a long-term regional plan to enhance U.S. interests throughout the Asia Pacific, while convincing a rising China to play by the rules developed with its neighbors throughout the region.

Expect Secretary Clinton to downplay Sino-U.S. rivalry in public. She deployed Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell to Beijing last week to talk with the Chinese in advance of her trip to try to coordinate messaging and avoid surprises at the ARF. Clinton will also emphasize the strong U.S. economic interest in the region in an effort to allay Southeast Asian concerns that the U.S. “rebalance” to Asia has been too security and military centric and may not be sustainable.

She will seek to accomplish these goals by promoting the role of the U.S. private sector in U.S.-ASEAN relations and deepening the level of U.S. engagement in the region. The commercial “pivot” to Southeast Asia will be clear when Clinton arrives in Vietnam on July 10 and meets with representatives of U.S. and Vietnamese business communities, which will probably see the inking of commercial deals. In Cambodia, she will travel from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap on July 13 to lead what has been touted as ASEAN’s biggest-ever meeting of U.S. and ASEAN businesses in a forum focused around the theme of “commitment to connectivity,” or C2C.

The commitment to deepening and broadening U.S.-ASEAN relations will also be on display during her trip to Laos, where she will be the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the landlocked country in 57 years. She is expected to meet with Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong of Laos and other senior government officials to discuss a host of bilateral and regional issues. In both Laos and Cambodia, the subjects discussed will not only include traditional security and economic issues, but also areas such as environmental sustainability, energy, education, and water management.

Clinton will also chair various meetings of the U.S.-supported Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), including delivering a keynote address in Siem Reap at the LMI Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Dialogue. The United States inaugurated the LMI in 2009 to foster cooperation with the Lower Mekong countries (Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia) in fields such as the environment, health, education, and infrastructure. Clinton’s trip should help the regional initiative gain greater momentum.

Ernest Z. Bower is senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Prashanth Parameswaran 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).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Prashanth Parameswaran

Ernest Z. Bower