15th East Asia Ministerial Summit, November 2020 – Review

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Op/Ed by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

  • ASEAN, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia and the United States all attend
  • Differences of opinion over South China Sea arbitration
  • Refocus on development of Smart Cities, Digital Tech Cooperation 
  • Four declarations on Marine Sustainability, Epidemics Prevention, Women Peace & Security, and Regional Growth all released (included in this summary)      


A variety of Presidents, Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers together with the head of the World Bank have met at the 15th East Asian Summit, this year hosted by Vietnam. The grouping includes the ASEAN bloc, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia and the United States.  Since its establishment, ASEAN has held the central role and leadership in the forum. EAS meetings are held after the annual ASEAN leaders’ meetings, playing an important role in the regional development of Asia-Pacific. This year’s summit was held in virtual format, and was chaired by Prime Minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Xuan Phuc in his capacity as chair of ASEAN.

China’s EAS Statement: Solidarity and the South China Sea  
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called for solidarity in fighting the pandemic and improving the public health capacity, urging greater contribution of the summit in promoting vaccine accessibility and affordability. China supports the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) putting in place contingency medical supplies reserves.

Li said the summit should strengthen policy coordination to forge the joint force of economic recovery, urging a regional network of “fast lanes” of personnel exchanges and “green lanes” of logistics to ensure the stable and smooth running of industrial and supply chains. The Chinese premier also called on all parties to engage in pragmatic cooperation to enhance the capacity of sustainable development, pledging China’s further efforts in climate change, anti-terrorism, cyber security and other areas of cooperation.Pertaining to the issue of South China Sea, Li said China is firmly resolved in safeguarding the region’s peace and stability, vowing China’s endeavor in upholding the rule of law on the international stage, and working with the ASEAN countries to fully and effectively implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and steadily advance the Code of Conduct consultations.

India’s EAS Statement: ASEAN is the centre of East Asia
Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar also talked about the Indo-Pacific and noted the growing interest in the region as an integrated and organic maritime space with 10-nation ASEAN at its centre. In an oblique message to China, Jaishankar expressed concern over “actions and incidents” that “erode” trust in the South China Sea, and underlined the importance of adhering to international law, respecting territorial integrity and sovereignty. India has been pitching for promoting a rules-based order in the region including through upholding adherence to international law, especially the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). Jaishankar) stated that “the Code of Conduct negotiations should not be prejudicial to legitimate interests of third parties and should be fully consistent with UNCLOS.”
This is a different stance from China’s position.

Following the Summit, India’s Ministry of External Affairs stated “The external affairs minister noted the growing interest in the Indo-Pacific as an integrated and organic maritime space, with ASEAN at its centre. He appreciated the synergy between the ASEAN Outlook and India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative.”

Philippines EAU Statement: South China Sea Concerns 
No one will emerge victorious if the South China Sea becomes a “locus of power play,” President Duterte said at the East Asia Summit amid renewed appeals for peace and stability in the region. “Let us not make the South China Sea another locus of power play. It is a dangerous game to play and one without a victor,” Duterte said. “Let us lower tensions, not raise them; build confidence rather than doubts; listen and understand instead of threaten,” he said.

Duterte raised anew the arbitration award on the South China Sea issue, which he claimed has become part of international law. UNCLOS, he added, provides a framework on “a clear way forward” in dealing with the maritime conflict.“The 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea is a definitive application of this constitution of the seas. It is part of international law,” he said. “We must commit to the rule of law — fully and firmly. There is simply no other acceptable basis for order in our region — but the law,” he added.

In 2016, a UN-recognized arbitration court nullified China’s sweeping claims to the South China Sea based on the so-called nine-dash line. The ruling was in favor of the Philippines which has contested China’s controversial claims in the territory.

Beijing however has rejected the ruling and instead continued its land reclamation and other activities in the South China Sea. China has overlapping claims with four ASEAN members namely Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam in the entire South China Sea.

In the same speech, the President maintained that the Asia Pacific must remain a region of peace “where the rule of law is supreme — where all countries are equal, neither pawns nor lackeys of any power.” He said the region runs the risk of compromising peace and stability in the region if it gives in to divisions and rivalry.

“The Asia-Pacific has always been a contested region where big powers vie for control and domination. Our challenge is to manage the unavoidable shifts resulting from this dynamic,” he said. “To do this, we need an open and inclusive regional architecture where ASEAN plays a central role,” he added.

He also welcomed the interest of EAS partners to cooperate with ASEAN in line with the principles and agenda of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. The Philippines particularly looks forward to enhanced engagement in maritime security, he said.

Duterte’s video conference remarks can be viewed here

Thailand’s EAS Statement: Covid-19 & Digital Tech Cooperation 
The Prime Minister of Thailand, General Prayut Chan-o-cha reiterated Thailand’s support to ASEAN centrality in the regional architecture for durable peace and sustainable growth in the region and proposed EAS members to enhance cooperation during COVID-19 towards concrete outcomes by focusing on public health security, economic resilience and human capital development.

Prime Minister Prayut urged enhanced cooperation in public health security, economic resilience and human capital development by utilizing various mechanisms and centres. He suggested that the EAS should also push forward the development of digital ecosystem and promotion of common digital standard to connect regional economy in an integrated manner.

Russia’s EAS Statement: Nuclear Treaties, Covid, & Smart Cities  
This is the text of Russian President Putin’s address to the EAS:

“Russia consistently advocates the establishment of the atmosphere of constructive cooperation and the enhancement of stability in the Asia-Pacific Region, including in the military political area where risks and threats have grown significantly after the termination of the INF Treaty upon the US initiative.

As you know, in an attempt to stabilize the situation and thwart another round of the arms race, we announced a unilateral moratorium on the deployment of intermediate and shorter-range missiles in the APR and other regions, for as long as our US partners refrain from such actions. We are open for serious talks on the issue with all interested states.

And, of course, close cooperation and interaction is needed to counter the gravest challenge faced by our region and the entire humankind – the coronavirus pandemic. I note that the Asia-Pacific Region has over 20 million coronavirus patients, which makes up almost half – 43.7 percent of the total number of infected people in the world.

In this context Russia proposed drafting a joint statement to be approved by the leaders of the East Asia Summit participating nations on fighting the coronavirus. I really hope that this documents will be adopted today. I would also like to remind you that as early as 2016 Russia put forward an initiative of developing anti-infection cooperation in the APR. Its implementation allowed us to establish coordination between epidemiological agencies, arrange experience and information exchanges, and start training specialists in this field. An advanced training programme was launched for epidemiologists from the APR at a centre in Vladivostok, Russia.

The operation of the ASEAN Centre of Military Medicine (ACMM) set up in Bangkok with Russia’s active assistance is also very useful. In May, the Centre hosted a command-staff exercise on fighting the pandemic which engaged defence representatives of the ASEAN nations and dialogue partners as well as World Health Organisation experts.

The Russian side is open to further active joint work on the epidemiology track. We have much to offer in terms of scientific, clinical and production experience in fighting infections. As you probably know, the first coronavirus vaccine in the world, Sputnik V, was developed and is already being used in Russia. Recently we registered another vaccine – EpiVacCorona, and a third vaccine is coming. Dozens of countries have already expressed their interest in working together to organise the supplies and joint manufacturing of these vaccines. We strongly believe that citizens of all countries must have free access to vaccination.

We are ready to provide our partners with Russian test systems, reagents for coronavirus diagnostics, including free of charge. As of now over a million tests have been provided to over 40 countries. Strengthening business and economic ties is a crucial task for all the nations of our shared region. We see that amid the pandemic in the Asia-Pacific space, mutual trade and investment exchanges are declining and recession has hit key industrial and financial sectors.

Thus, Russia’s trade with the states present at the summit today fell by 12 percent in the first three quarters of the year. We expect that the statement on ensuring stable growth of the region’s economy to be adopted today, proposed by our Chinese partners, will boost the expansion of trade, investment and technological exchanges between our nations.

I believe the build-up of economic cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Region will also be enhanced by further development of various integration projects. We are confident that regional and subregional associations, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Eurasian Economic Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, can interact in the interests of the entire region by harmoniously and effectively complementing each other.

This week’s summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation chaired by Russia adopted a joint statement by the leaders approving the idea of aligning integration efforts and Russia-proposed initiative on establishing the Greater Eurasian Partnership as a single, broad and open space of security and mutually beneficial economic and humanitarian cooperation.

Another topic of crucial importance for all our nations is the digitization of the economy and introduction of high-tech solutions to improve people’s lives. A great deal is being done in Russia to develop this area. We are seventh in the world today in terms of people’s involvement in the digital economy. A large number of services and support instruments for citizens have already been transferred into an online format.

We welcome the important and timely initiative of smart cities proposed two years ago by Singapore chairmanship, which stipulated the application of advanced urban technologies in the APR nations. On our part, we could offer our own technological know-hows in this area.

Colleagues, I would like to stress in conclusion that the future of the Asia-Pacific Region depends on how closely we will be able to unite in the face of the emerging challenges and threats, to show political will for cooperation in the interests of universal and sustainable development. Such an approach will undoubtedly yield results, and the Russian side is ready to make its contribution to joint work.

Russian President Putin’s address (in Russian) can be viewed here.

The United Nations EAS Statement 
A video message by António Guterres (United Nations Secretary-General) to the East Asia Summit 2020: “Global Efforts Addressing COVID-19 and Promoting Recovery”


The Hanoi Declaration  
Overall, the leaders called for greater cooperation in keeping the global supply chains open for a timely, and sustainable economic recovery. Regional and international issues such as the South China Sea, the situation on the Korean peninsula and Myanmar’s Rakhine state were also discussed.

The summit issued a declaration and also adopted four further statements:

Marine Sustainability

Epidemics Prevention 

Women, Peace and Security

Growth of the Regional Economy

The 15th East Asia Summit stressed the serious impacts of COVID-19 pandemic and the need for all countries to work together towards economic recovery and mitigate its socio-economic impacts. The UN Secretary-General emphasized the importance of global solidarity, especially in developing accessible COVID-19 vaccines and close cooperation in the post COVID-19 world in addressing non-traditional challenges such as climate change and reducing inequality and development gap. Meanwhile, the President of the World Bank expressed readiness to work with all countries in tackling COVID-19, particularly by providing technical advice on vaccine procurement.

In addition, the Meeting also emphasized the importance of the EAS as the premier Leaders-led forum for strategic discussion. Participating countries exchanged views on the regional architecture and recent developments in the region where there exist growing uncertainties. The meeting supported ASEAN centrality and agreed that there is a need to enhance the environment conducive to promoting regional peace and stability.

The 15th East Asia Forum Hanoi Declaration in PDF format can be downloaded here

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Silk Road Briefing is written by Dezan Shira & Associates. The firm has 28 offices throughout Asia, and assists foreign investors into the region. For strategic advisory and business intelligence issues please contact the firm at silkroad@dezshira.com or visit www.dezshira.com