Established in 1994 with the member-ship of eighteen states, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is the sole region-wide multilateral security institution in the post-Cold War Asia-Pacific. While it is primarily a dialogue forum without binding decision-making and enforcement mechanisms, it has gradually institutionalized numerous confidence-building measures (CBMs) among the member states. As its name strongly suggests, the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are in the ‘driver's seat’. Furthermore, the ASEAN states, it is often argued, have successfully transplanted their principles and practices for mutual interaction to the ARF setting. These codes of behavior, often called ‘the ASEAN Way’, are characterized by ‘a high degree of discreetness, informality, pragmatism, expediency, consensus-building, and non-confrontational bargaining style’, in sharp contrast to ‘adversarial posturing and legalistic styles’ found in the West (Acharya 1997: 329).
What is the nature of the ARF? In answering this question, specialists have come to loosely form two competing camps: structural realists on the one hand, and the advocates of what Amitav Acharya (1999: 25, n. 15) calls ‘institutionalism with a constructivist orientation’ (constructivists hereafter) on the other. Structural realists regard the ARF essentially as an epiphenomenon and remain highly skeptical about the efficacy of the multilateral institution in Asia-Pacific power politics. Constructivists, on their part, place significant emphasis on a new regional identity being formed, particularly around the ASEAN Way. They argue that old state interests are profoundly transformed to the extent that materialist perspectives like structural realism are becoming increasingly inadequate in the study of the ARF. Power politics in the region, according to constructivists, is changing slowly yet steadily. Each position is epitomized by the two quotations at the beginning of this article.
These two dominant perspectives on the ARF have serious limitations, however, because they fail to adequately capture the utilities that the ARF provides to its member states. The ARF exists because it satisfies some needs felt by its member states. Its rules and practices signify internationally agreed solutions for these needs. The member states would have little motivation to spend their precious resources to sustain ARF activities if the ARF did not supply what they demand. In short, the ARF exists because of its functions; its existence serves the member states’ interests.