The ARF presently consists of 19 full participants, including the seven countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), the EU, the United States, Japan and Australia. Membership is theoretically open to "participants that can directly affect the peace and security of the region", a definition which is taken to embrace Russia and the states of Oceania, as well as the Americas.
As investors in the region, with individual military interests, the European states are doubly represented on the ARF by the European Commission and by the occupant of the EU's rotating presidency, currently held by Ireland. But at the ARF's third ministerial meeting in Jakarta this week, the present arrangement has come under question amid gathering unease between the Asean states, the EU, and two of its member states.
At the heart of the problem are moves by Britain and France to acquire their own individual seats at the ARF, distinct from their collective representation under the European umbrella. France and Britain are both nuclear powers, and are the only permanent members of the UN Security Council without direct participation in the Forum. In making their application late last year, the British also cited their military presence in Hong Kong and Brunei, and their participation in the Five Nations Defence Pact, with Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Australia.
Among the Asian states, this has been regarded as a flimsy rationale, and no noticeable progress has been made on accepting either the British or French applications. European Commission officials vigorously oppose the idea, for fear that their own influence may be reduced, or even that they may forfeit their collective seat in favour of Paris or London.
"The British and French want to appear as great powers, but they are showing a lack of trust in the EU. And supposing Britain got a seat and held the EU presidency - would it get two seats? It would be ridiculous," said a Commission official.
The rift has been used by some Asean nations as a way of getting back at the Commission, whose critical stance on human rights in Burma has irritated them. The Indonesian foreign minister, Ali Alatas, has boosted Britain's hopes, and dismayed the Europeans, by sympathetically setting out London's reasons for wanting to join the ARF. "That was his way of subtly getting at us," said the Commission official. "It was Alatas saying: be careful, we can take on them and drop you."
The Europeans have angered the Asean countries, particularly Indonesia, the host of this week's ARF conference, by their pointed criticisms of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc), Rangoon's military junta. Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister and EU president, and the European Commission vice-president, Manuel Marin, have made repeated references to Burmese human rights violations. "There is deep concern in the European Union at what is happening in Myanmar," Mr Spring told a gathering of ministers yesterday. "The Slorc regime still rules in an unacceptable manner."
But human rights is a touchy subject among several Asean members, especially Mr Spring's Indonesian hosts whose brutal annexation of East Timor has itself been the subject of European condemnation. The bad feeling between the two sides overflowed at a news conference on Tuesday when Mr Alatas denounced the "intellectual arrogance and intellectual hypocrisy" of those who sought to impose Western-style democracy on Asian countries.Reuse content