27th ARF: Virtual meeting won’t stop vibrant discussions on COVID-19, South China Sea


THE ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the annual regionwide Asia-Pacific multilateral forum on peace and security, will convene tomorrow (Sept 12) under very challenging security situations caused by the coronavirus and the escalating tensions in the South China Sea.

Due to the pandemic, the 27th ARF hosted by ASEAN Chair 2020, Vietnam, will convene this year through video conference.

The forum, which gathers not only 10 ASEAN Foreign Ministers and 16 other countries as well as the European Union (EU), have a lot on their plate this year – especially with the addition of COVID-19 into the mix of other ‘usual’ conflict or tensions in the region, such as the South China Sea issue and the Korean Peninsula.

Political analyst Prof Dr. K.S Nathan said that even though virtual meetings can be restrictive, the region has to do what it takes to keep the dialogue channel open.

“COVID-19 is a security issue. It is affecting livelihoods. It also affects national security. The world economy is going through a serious recession. No country is benefitting from this.

“The only way is to come together. ASEAN can now discuss the COVID-19 issues and see how diplomacy can be used to eliminate this pandemic and its security issues,” he told Bernama.

Prof Dr. Kamarulnizam Abdullah of Universiti Utara Malaysia’s School of International Studies said the ARF can probably discuss creating a common standard procedure for countries on health screening procedures and the entrance of foreign citizens as well as information sharing on COVID-19.

Countries, he said, can also discuss cooperation in vaccine development and the sharing of resources.

Both experts agree that the annual forum would also put importance on the South China Sea issue as the ARF is the perfect platform to do so – with almost all claimants present at the forum, together with interested parties like the United States.

Nathan said other maritime powers at the forum such as Japan, India and Australia would also be interested in the discussions on the South China Sea as about 60 to 70 per cent of world trade passes through the area.

“The ARF has to discuss burning issues in the South China Sea to prevent a confrontation in the area. One way the ARF can play a role is to encourage China and the US to dialogue within this forum and give them a face-saving device…not to push it to the precipice. This is not our approach in ASEAN. We go for win-win,” he added.

Kamarulnizam said other maritime issues that may be discussed are on the East China Sea, which involves China and Japan, revolving around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

But he is doubtful that any strong statement or language will be used in the Final Communique regarding the two issues.

He said issues on maritime security up for discussions are not limited to disputed areas, but also on maritime terrorism and transnational crime as well as illegal fishing.

Meanwhile, both experts agree that ARF will continue to be a relevant and major contributor to peace and stability in the region  – not only for ASEAN but also for its regional actors.

Having done so since its inception in 1994, ARF “takes the cake” in preventing issues from becoming open conflict and war, said Nathan.

“Some not so positive views on ARF is that it’s a talk shop. But it is a very important talk shop. We prefer dialogue and consensus than confrontation in this region,” he said.

Kamarulnizam said through the ARF, countries in the region can talk about security concerns without encroaching into other domestic or bilateral issues such as the China-US, India-Pakistan, and North Korea-South Korea conflict.

ARF has 27 members comprising 10 ASEAN member states, 10 ASEAN Dialogue Partners (Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the United States), one ASEAN observer (Papua New Guinea), and six other countries in the region (Bangladesh, North Korea, Mongolia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Timor-Leste).

Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein is scheduled to join the ARF from Putrajaya.

At the 26th ARF in Bangkok last year, the forum exchanged views on regional and international issues such as the situation in the Rakhine State, the South China Sea, and the Korean Peninsula.

They also addressed the need to cooperate on counter-terrorism, countering violent extremism and transnational crimes, cybersecurity, and promote the realisation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.