Between October 26 and 28, a series of highly significant diplomatic events have been virtually hosted by ASEAN under its current Bruneian Chairmanship. The 38th and 39th ASEAN Summit – a meeting normally held biannually, reuniting the leaders of the 10 ASEAN countries – was followed by the East Asia Summit – a diplomatic event of regional and global impact reuniting leaders of 18 countries, organised under ASEAN leadership – and, subsequently, by the 24th ASEAN+3 Summit, which gathers the ASEAN members along with the three main economic powers of East Asia, as well as the related ASEAN+1 bilateral summits.
Clearly, the nine representatives of the member states, as well as all the leaders participating at the related summits, have faced numerous and significant matters of regional and international importance, ranging from the Covid-19 pandemic and its nefarious effects to the Myanmar developments and the disputes in the South China Sea (or East Sea, as referred to by some Southeast Asian countries). One may not exaggerate by referring to the summits as the most inclusive form of multilateral diplomacy in the region, reaffirming the ASEAN Centrality in Southeast Asia.
The 2021 ASEAN Summit, comprising the 38th and 39th edition of the regional event – most likely reorganised as such in the light of the pandemic – is, of course, the result of the common will, dialogue and understanding of the participating countries in accordance with the core spirit of ASEAN’s basic principles of “One Vision, One Identity and One Community”. The 2021 ASEAN Summit equally represents the result of a constant evolution and incremental refinement, building upon the remarkable results of the previous ASEAN Summits. To this avail, analysing the 2021 ASEAN Summit could only be conducted in relation to the previous Summit, based on the Chairman’s statements issued at the end of each respective event.
ASEAN Community & ASEAN Centrality. As a marked development from the last year’s statement on commitment of the member countries, the ASEAN Community and ASEAN Centrality concepts have been streamlined “to further strengthen the ASEAN Community as well as ASEAN’s Centrality and unity to address common challenges”. The semantics seem to indicate a firm direction toward the consolidation of the two above-mentioned concepts as a superior form of regional integration. One may consider the on-going issues faced by ASEAN, as well as the tensions in the architecture of the Indo-Pacific as catalysts of development and consolidation at ASEAN level.
Covid 19 Pandemic. The 2021 Statement also witnesses a new section dedicated to the on-going pandemic and the challenges posed at regional level titled “Response to the Covid 19 pandemic”, signalling the importance attached by all member states to the exit strategy from the pandemic.
Sub-regional Cooperation. Another new section, titled "Sub-regional cooperation", stresses "the importance of ASEAN Centrality and unity in promoting ASEAN's sub-regional development".As the section has no apparent references to either intra-ASEAN sub-regional cooperation or cooperation with third parties, one may assume its embryonic value for future sub-regional cooperation. The section seems to infer that sub-regional cooperation should neither affect the unity of the regional organisation nor its Centrality in Southeast Asia. Certainly, several sub-regional cooperation formats have achieved a particular impact, such as the Lancang Mekong Cooperation Mechanism launched in Hainan, China. Naturally, one may read the section as a potential warning: ASEAN’s sub-regional development in cooperation with third parties shall not come at the cost of the regional organisation’s cohesiveness.
ASEAN Political-Security Community. One of the most significant sections of the Statement, dedicated to the “ASEAN Political-Security Community” has been maintained in a similar shape with the previous Summit’s statement. The rather conservative wording and sequences of ideas might be interpreted as a strong signal favouring the consistency of ASEAN’s Political-Security pillar as described in the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) Blueprint. With a genesis of over four decades, APSC Blueprint has been designed to “ensure that the peoples and Member States of ASEAN live in peace with one another and with the world at large in a just, democratic and harmonious environment.”The framing of the section under discussion could be considered a genuine display of consistency and commitment to the ASEAN values, despite the arising challenges and power dynamics in the Indo-Pacific.
One of these challenges is presented in paragraph 45 of the Statement, which reads: “We noted the UNGA Resolution A/RES/75/239 emphasising in the Preamble, the universal and unified character of the 1982 UNCLOS, and reaffirmed that the Convention sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out and is of strategic importance as the basis for national, regional and global action and cooperation in the marine sector.” In what some may consider a possible reference to the maritime tensions in South China Sea, ASEAN clearly appeals to the universal character of the maritime law, as defined by the existing conventions, especially UNCLOS. In this regard, one must acknowledge ASEAN’s consistent and clearly expressed views on the universality of international law.
A Global ASEAN. In a new addition compared to last year’s statement, “A Global ASEAN” section has been added to further underscorethe support of the regional economic recovery and "the importance of keeping markets open, maintaining supply chain resilience, supporting MSMEs, and increasing trade inter-linkages." Indeed, with 10 ratifier countries at the time – out of 15 signatory countries – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is projected to be effective starting on January 1, 2022.
External Relations. A more concise and rather pragmatic new wording has been used under the “ASEAN External Relations” section. Last year’s rather complex wording has been replaced with a more concise and pragmatic illustration of the regional organisation’s aspirations on the “importance of strengthening ASEAN Centrality, unity in our engagement with ASEAN’s external partners, including through ASEAN-led mechanisms such as the ASEAN-Plus One, ASEAN Plus Three (APT), East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and ADMM-Plus, in order to build mutual trust and confidence as well as reinforce an open, transparent, inclusive, and rules-based regional architecture with ASEAN at the centre." Indeed, one may interpret the new wording as a testimony to ASEAN’s top priorities in the light of the continuously evolving dynamics in the region: ASEAN’s Centrality and Unity in the region, also in relation to any third parties. Located at the centre of the emerging power competition of the century, one may acknowledge that the concept of ASEAN Centrality has become regionally and globally recognised.
Regional and International Issues. One of the most commented sections of the ASEAN Summit, “Regional and International Issues”, maintains the format and order of the previous statements, namely South China Sea, Developments in the Korean Peninsula and Situation in the Middle East. Based on the order in which the issues have been evoked as well as on the paramount importance of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, whose finalization is lagging behind schedule, one may argue that the “land reclamations, activities, serious incidents in the area, including damage to the marine environment, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions, and may undermine peace, security, and stability in the region” remain one of the most stringent issues on ASEAN's agenda.
Of paramount importance for the security of Asia-Pacific, the Developments in the Korean Peninsula have been under ASEAN’s constant attention. In this regard, ASEAN maintained a consistent position, stressing on the importance of “continued peaceful dialogue (…) to realise lasting peace and stability in a denuclearised Korean Peninsula”. To this avail, the regional organisation manifested its readiness to “play a constructive role” through the ASEAN-led platforms.
In the light of the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar and the current situation in the country, a new subsection titled “Developments in Myanmar” has been added as the fourth item under “Regional and International Issues”. Despite having reached an early agreement on the Five Point Consensus and providing major assistance to Naypyidaw by stressing the role of ASEAN-level solidarity in finding efficient solutions for the complex issues of the country, the Statement “called on Myanmar to fulfil its commitment to the Five-Point Consensus”, which might be interpreted as a diplomatic manner of showcasing that – so far – Naypyidaw has failed to fulfil its previous commitments. In fact, according to media reports, Myanmar refused to send a representative to the ASEAN Summit after the regional organisation decided to exclude the chief of the military junta who assumed power following the coup.
The Summit’s Statement, however, was quick to signal ASEAN’s position on the newly registered developments as a necessary balance according to the organisation’s principles and not a breech of sovereignty: “While respecting the principle of non-interference, we reaffirmed our adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government as well as the need to strike an appropriate balance to the application of ASEAN principles on the situation in Myanmar.”
East Asia Summit. In addition to the Statement related to the ASEAN Summit, the 16th East Asia Summit came to reconfirm not only the paramount importance of ASEAN at regional level but, equally, the globally recognised dimension of ASEAN Centrality. Bringing together the ASEAN leaders along with leaders of the United States, Russian Federation and China – inter alia – sent a strong signal on “ASEAN’s central role in the EAS and ASEAN’s commitment to work in close partnership with all EAS participating countries to ensure that the EAS continues to be an integral component of the regional architecture.” Traditionally adhering to the principles of dialogue, mutual respect and cooperation, the EAS Statement adopted a neutral position with regard to certain recent evolutions in the Asia-Pacific dynamics, such as AUKUS: “We also noted views expressed by some EAS participating countries on AUKUS.”
ASEAN+3 Summit.Certainly, the 24th ASEAN+3 Summit represented an opportunity to further strengthen the cooperation between the Southeast Asian countries and China, Japan and South Korea.
The South Korean President reaffirmed his country’s commitment to the strategic partnership with ASEAN, stressing that the organisation represents a key priority of Seoul’s foreign policy, in the framework of the newly coined strategy New Southern Policy Plus (NSPP). The South Korean official has committed to continue supporting ASEAN in fighting the pandemic announcing an added contribution of 5 million dollars to the ASEAN fund for fighting Covid-19.
The Japanese Prime Minister offered his country’s assistance worth more than 200 million dollars by providing medical supplies and equipment as well as support to revitalize the ASEAN economy. Japan’s leader similarly stated his support of ASEAN’s efforts, including the Five Point Consensus and urged Myanmar to make a constructive response.
The Chinese Prime Minister has announced a contribution of 100 million dollars to the ASEAN-China Cooperation Fund. Despite certain tensions related to the maritime disputes in the South China Sea, the ASEAN leaders agreed that the bilateral relations with China have been reinforced with positive results, especially with regard to the fight against pandemic. According to media statements attributed to the Chinese Premier, Beijing advanced a proposition to officially launch a feasibility study to identify new areas to be included in a subsequently reinforced ASEAN-China Free Trade Area, thus signalling a possible extension of the Free Trade Agreement in the future.
ASEAN-India Summit.The 18th ASEAN-India Summit welcomed India’s over 1 million dollar contribution to the Covid 19 ASEAN Response Fund. A particular importance was attached to the on-going tensions in the South China Sea: while the participants stressed the importance of general principles of international law, they equally underscored “the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states”.
ASEAN-China Summit. The 24th ASEAN-China Summit stressed on the various fields of cooperation between ASEAN and China, ranging from the fight against the pandemic to the trade relations between the two parties. Importantly, both parties agreed on the “need to pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS” as well as “the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states”. Certainly, an “effective and substantive COC that is in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS” remains one of the most sought-after deliverables in the ASEAN-China relation.
ASEAN-USA Summit.The 9th ASEAN-USA Summit benefited of the participation of the US President, who stressed the importance of the USA-ASEAN ties for the security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific. The US President announced his country’s intention to provide up to 102 million dollars for new USA-ASEAN initiatives to fight against Covid-19, mitigate the climate crisis and promote economic growth and human capital development. At the same time, the US Head of State expressed his support for the ASEAN efforts to promote dialogue, reconciliation and assistance to Myanmar in order to stabilise the country’s situation.
While reflecting the on-going developments at ASEAN and Asia-Pacific level, the 2021 ASEAN Summit and the related events have showcased a reinforced position of the regional organisation, whose Centrality in the region continues to be mutually recognised, despite the tense situation in the Asia-Pacific architecture.
Certainly, the Summit could also be regarded as a successful example of resilience against the two new crisis faced by ASEAN: the Covid-19 pandemic and the coup in Myanmar. The global recognition of ASEAN’s success in providing answers to its own issues – such as the collective efforts to address the pandemic and to “recover swiftly and sustainably”, as well as the reaffirmation of the Five Point Proposal – indicate the high capabilities of the organisation which, beyond providing sustainable development to its over 1 billion citizens, could act as a common denominator among all Asia-Pacific actors.
The major diplomatic event has been concluded with the handover ceremony between Brunei and Cambodia for the rotating Chairmanship of ASEAN. On this occasion, the Cambodian Prime Minister announced the 2022 ASEAN motto: "Addressing Challenges Together".
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or view of IRSEA.