Pakistan in ARF

Print edition : July 30, 2004

Pakistan joins the ASEAN Regional Forum as a full-fledged "participating country", signifying its strategic importance in the region which plays a crucial role in global politics in the post-Cold War era.

in Singapore

Hassan Wirayuda and Khurshid Kasuri, Foreign Ministers of Indonesia and Pakistan, shake hands at the signing ceremony of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Jakarta, on July 2.-BAY ISMOYO/AFP

PAKISTAN'S recent admission to an elite security-dialogue forum, which the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) pilots, is the stuff of a real homecoming story.

From July 2, Pakistan is a full-fledged "participating country" in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). The decision was taken at its latest annual ministerial meeting in Jakarta on July 2. By convention, the ARF regards its members as participants, the idea being that the forum, primarily an association for South East Asia's security-dialogue with major and emerging powers of the Asia-Pacific region, should not be mistaken for a strategic alliance with military overtones.

The forum now consists of 24 participants. While the 10 ASEAN members form the core group, the other participants include the United States, Russia, China, India, Japan and Australia. Relevant to the significant expansion of the ARF is the fact that South-East Asia, once Pakistan's strategic habitat, is now a resurgent region with much relevance to the evolving post-Cold War era.

Several decades ago, Pakistan "belonged" to the old United States-led South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO). When SEATO itself became irrelevant to this region, Pakistan, too, fell off the radar screens of the pivotal countries of South-East Asia. However, Islamabad made them sit up and take notice by carrying out nuclear weapons tests in 1998 in the specific context of India's Pokhran-II detonations. From then on, an informal countdown began for a new equation between South-East Asia and Pakistan.

With India having been admitted by the ARF as a participant-country well before Pokhran-II, New Delhi's "nuclearisation" did come up, in a big way, for discussions at the ARF's annual ministerial meeting in 1998 in Manila. (Frontline, August 28, 1998).

Not that India, a conscientious opponent of the discriminatory nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), owed any particular explanation to the ARF for what was essentially an exercise of a sovereign right.

It became evident soon thereafter that it might only be a matter of time before the ARF thought of inviting Pakistan, which cited the Indian nuclear detonations to justify its own tests in 1998, to join the forum as a participant.

Indeed, a few countries including Japan, a non-ASEAN participant of the ARF, seriously considered the idea of inviting Pakistan to the ministerial meeting of 1998 itself as an observer or as the guest of the Chair, the Philippines. In the event though, the move failed. Several factors of power politics accounted for the lack of consensus. One of them is the open displeasure of India, a full-fledged ARF participant, over such patent moves to bracket it with Pakistan.

Pakistan's relevance to ASEAN, the core group within the ARF, increased dramatically after the terrorist strikes on U.S. soil on September 11, 2001. For a variety of reasons of historical realpolitik and because of Pakistan's original sponsorship of the Taliban, which sheltered Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, the U.S. quickly drafted Islamabad into the "global coalition against terrorism". Pakistan's military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, cited his own India-oriented "strategic" reasons to take a prominent position on the U.S.-led anti-terror bandwagon.

Alarmingly, countries like Singapore, a proactive player in the anti-terror exercise, discovered the existence of a terrorist network, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), in South-East Asia itself. Several key ASEAN members as also some intelligence networks in South-East Asia and the West tend to believe that the JI is an Al Qaeda affiliate. Towards the end of 2003 and in recent months, at least one ASEAN state has traced some JI activists to a few terrorist training camps in Pakistan.

These developments have provided a sense of urgency for an ASEAN dialogue with Pakistan on security-related issues. A parallel trend is that the Musharraf administration has, by and large, come to be regarded in the ASEAN circles as a serious anti-terror campaigner.

Not surprisingly, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers reached a unanimous decision, during their annual session at Phnom Penh in 2003, to recommend that the ARF open its doors to Pakistan. But the ARF, which met on the following day at the ministerial level, shelved the issue, on the main ground that the larger forum had not had sufficient time to study it. Although India, Russia and the U.S. had, on that occasion, expressed views that had the collective effect of blocking Pakistan's entry, it became obvious, even then, that the ARF would not hold out for a much longer period.

Finally, the ARF's senior officials, who met at Yogyakarta (Indonesia) unanimously decided to recommend that the Foreign Ministers of the forum's participating countries invite Pakistan to join them.

Earlier, states like the U.S. had suggested that the ARF evolve a fuller perspective on its geopolitical reach in the context of the desire of some countries to join it. While New Delhi did not disagree, it was keen that Pakistan, if admitted to the ARF, should not utilise the forum for raising India-centric bilateral issues. India's concern on this score was shared by other ASEAN states, too.

Subsequently, the ARF sought and obtained from Pakistan a commitment that it would not include purely bilateral issues in the forum's agenda. Pakistan honoured this commitment during its participation in the ARF meeting and no statements were made regarding the South Asian security situation or the Kashmir issue.

According to ARF diplomatic sources, the nuclear proliferation issue was discussed in a wider international context. However, it is important to note that some ASEAN states look upon the (perceived) potential for a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir issue as a security concern to the wider international community.

Pakistan's ARF odyssey is noteworthy for another reason, too. While most ARF participants have acquired membership after becoming full-fledged "dialogue-partners" of ASEAN on economic cooperation, Pakistan has done so without following the same path. According to diplomats from ASEAN and the West, Pakistan's relevance to nuclear proliferation and terrorism is the prime factor. For Pakistan itself, an overwhelming strategic imperative was to join India in Asia's only security-dialogue forum.

A Chinese expert, Hu Shisheng, who has made a study of the regional implications of India's strategic interaction with ASEAN, has brought into focus yet another factor. At a meeting in Singapore on June 23, Hu pointed out that the "China factor" could be discerned in almost "every development" concerning India's "look-East strategy". The centrepieces of this strategy, of course, relate to India's participation in the ARF and economic linkages with ASEAN states.

Liu Xuecheng, an expert associated with the Chinese Foreign Ministry, noted that Beijing had consistently advocated, since the end of the Cold War, that countries in the ARF region should "cultivate a new concept of security". China's own new security concept is that the principles of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination should determine inter-state relations.

Given the obvious sensitivities among Pakistan, India and China as participants within the ARF forum the question is how Pakistan, as a new entrant, would play the forum's general game of regional security through mutual cooperation.

ASEAN is keen that China and other powers with nuclear arsenals, recognised as a collective category under the NPT, should accede to a relevant protocol on the acceptance of this 10-state region as a nuclear weapons-free zone. China has indicated its willingness to do so, although the process is yet to reach a decisive stage.

India, which is not an NPT-signatory, has already offered to accede to this protocol. Indeed, it did so while participating in the ARS session in 1998 soon after the Pokhran-II detonations. However, no concrete progress has been made on this front, if only because India is not in the NPT's league of nuclear powers. India's offer, however, is an index of its peaceable intentions.

Pakistan, which has now joined India and China by acceding to the ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, may follow India's lead by offering to sign the relevant protocol on the acceptance of South-East Asia as a nuclear weapons-free zone.

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