John Kerry to Attend ASEAN Regional Forum

  • Photo Courtesy of Center for American Progress Action Fund from
    Jun 26, 2013

    U.S. secretary of state John Kerry will visit Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei Darussalam, to attend the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) on July 2. He will meet with counterparts from the 26 other member states and the European Union, and consult directly with his 10 ASEAN counterparts. The U.S. secretary of state’s participation in the ARF has become a key benchmark for countries across the Asia Pacific to assess levels of U.S. engagement. This will be Kerry’s first ARF, as he attempts to sustain the perfect attendance record established by his predecessor Hillary Clinton.

    Kerry’s initial plans included related stops in Indonesia and Vietnam, but those trips were cancelled because he needed to travel to the Middle East for Syria-related consultations. His planned trip to India remained on the schedule. The forum will focus on regional security and political issues. South China Sea and East China Sea will likely command headlines.

    Kerry has had a long history in the Asia Pacific. He was a Vietnam veteran and played a key role in normalizing U.S.-Vietnam relations in 1995. As senator and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was actively involved in shaping policies in the region.

    Q1: What is the ASEAN Regional Forum?

    A1: The ARF is an annual dialogue established in 1994 to foster cooperation and diplomacy in the Asia Pacific region. It is a key part of rapidly developing and maturing ASEAN-centered regional architecture, which the United States believes is a core part of a sustainable and smart strategy for the Asia Pacific. The meeting in Bandar Seri Begawan will be the 20th ARF.

    Over the years, ASEAN has invited countries who are dialogue partners or have observer status in ASEAN, so the ARF includes foreign ministers from 27 member states and the European Union, who meet to discuss current political and security issues. The ARF includes the 18 members of the East Asia Summit—the 10 ASEAN members plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the United States—along with nine other countries. It is designed to provide a setting for constructive dialogue to enhance peace and stability within the region. Brunei will be hosting the ARF as the 2013 ASEAN chair.

    Q2: What is the significance of John Kerry’s participation to the forum?

    A2: Secretary Kerry will seek to reassure U.S. allies and partners across the Asia Pacific that the U.S. rebalance to the region is sincere and sustainable. Regional partners have questions about the sustainability and level of commitment of the rebalance as Kerry has seemingly prioritized the Syrian conflict and restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process since taking office on February 1. He had been to the Middle East three times before visiting Japan, Korea, and China in April, and plans to be in the Middle East again before he lands in Brunei on June 29.

    Southeast Asians are keenly aware that Kerry decided not to pursue a recommendation to visit Indonesia—the largest member of ASEAN in size and economy, and home of the ASEAN Secretariat—during his April trip. Hillary Clinton’s first trip as secretary included Indonesia and a visit to the ASEAN headquarters.

    Kerry’s engagement in Southeast Asia is foundational to the strategy established during President Barack Obama’s first administration. ASEAN is the core of newly developing Asian architectures designed to provide a balance between security and economic engagement, and create a broader regional context designed to convince China to promote its interests by making and then abiding by regional and international rules.

    Kerry’s engagement in the ARF is therefore fundamental to President Obama’s Asia Pacific planning. The forum can rightly be seen as a preparatory meeting to provide input to leaders for the East Asia Summit, which will be held in Brunei in October. This is particularly true given that the East Asia Summit foreign ministers will caucus on the sidelines of the ARF.

    Likewise, Kerry’s presence is crucial to reassure the United States’ ASEAN allies and partners who are involved in disputes with China in the South China Sea—Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam—that the United States is actively involved in discussions on the issue. The ASEAN community relies heavily on U.S. leadership to encourage China to play by the rules and move ahead to establish a binding code of conduct that is conducive to resolving conflicts in the South China Sea. Kerry remarked in a speech in Tokyo on April 15 that the challenges in the Asia Pacific “require a region-wide partnership,” and his presence at the ARF is significant to building that environment.

    Kerry’s participation will also serve as a confidence-building measure to bridge U.S.-China security relations. The current military relationship between China and the United States is one of mutual distrust. Some in China still perceive the rebalance to Asia as a containment strategy to counter China’s increasing influence in the region. The United States, on the other hand, argues that it is an effort to better enhance security and stability in an increasingly important region. U.S.-China relations are crucial to ASEAN security, and the ARF provides a platform to enhance mutual understanding between the two Pacific powers while minimizing miscalculations.

    Q3: What issues will Kerry take up at the ARF?

    A3: Kerry will underline a sustained U.S. commitment to see maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea managed through regional institutions, especially ASEAN, and according to international law. These issues are likely to draw headlines at the ARF. The Philippines on January 22 initiated arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea over China’s claims. Thailand, as a non-claimant to the South China Sea, was tapped to facilitate negotiations between China and ASEAN on a code of conduct, but negotiations have not been very active. The United States has not taken sides on jurisdictional claims, but Kerry’s approach on these delicate issues will be closely monitored.

    The perennial issue of North Korea’s nuclear program will also be discussed. Both Koreas, along with China, Japan, Russia, and the United States, are members of the ARF. Officials around the region have hinted that the forum might be used as an opportunity to discuss rebooting the Six-Party Talks over denuclearizing North Korea. The issue of North Korea is also likely to be raised by ASEAN members, who last year issued their first ever joint statement condemning a North Korean missile launch.

    Subnational conflicts in ASEAN are also a point of concern that could be discussed. Ethnic and religious conflicts in Myanmar, particularly related to the Kachin and Rohingya minorities, are likely to surface. Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia are still dealing with subnational conflicts of their own to varying degrees.

    Cross-border disputes, which have flared up within the region, could also come up in the discussions. Thailand and Cambodia are involved in a dispute surrounding land near the 900-year-old Preah Vihear Temple, and they presented oral arguments to the International Court of Justice from April 15 to April 19. The Philippines and Malaysia also have a dispute over the Malaysian state of Sabah, which flared in May when Malaysian forces launched operations against a group of around 200 armed Filipinos who had invaded a town in the area.

    Finally, Kerry will focus on confidence-building measures, including regional efforts to work together on global issues like climate change, human rights, and environmental protection. He will also take part in discussions on the need to balance security discussions with economic development.

    Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser and holds the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Noelan Arbis is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair at CSIS

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