This year will mark the fifteen years of the establishment of the East Asia Summit [EAS]. The 15th EAS scheduled to be held in November 2020 at a time when the world is confronted with a major pandemic. Over the years the EAS has established itself as providing a critical platform through its annual Leaders’ Summit to discuss issues of political, economic, and security concern. As EAS member countries fall within the Indo-Pacific, whose geographical coverage encompasses a number of countries in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, the paper looks into how this forum can be further strengthened through cooperative frameworks such as the Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative [IPOI] proposed by India.
The East Asia Summit Leaders’ at the 14th EAS held in November 4, 2019[i]
The EAS which was established on December 14, 2005, has increased its membership from the original 16 to 18 countries comprising of the ten ASEAN countries, along with Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, the United States [US], and Russia. The participating countries in the EAS represent over fifty percent of the global population and with a total GDP estimated at the US $ 49.4 trillion that accounts for around 58 percent globe GDP.[ii] The EAS which helps build dialogue for discussing issues of priority such as energy and environment, finance, education, cooperation in terms of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief [HADR], pandemics, and issues of connectivity, seeks also to advance a strategic balance amongst the key powers in the region. The EAS member States geographically fall within the Indo-Pacific which is presently the subject of intense geopolitical and geo-economic discourse. Ongoing developments in the Indo-Pacific region amounts to an escalation of security threats. This ranges from terrorism to conflicts amongst countries over resources and territory to the great power rivalry between the US and China. The US and China rivalry is a key dimension in the ongoing strategic discussions on the Indo-Pacific. The growing assertiveness of China is accompanied by a renewed interest of the US in the region, resulting in an intense strategic competition.[iii]
Amongst the EAS member countries, the Indo-Pacific concept is reflected in the official documents of Japan, India, Australia, the US, and the ASEAN Member States. These countries share a perspective on the Indo-Pacific which is to ensure a safe and secure maritime space. In these approaches while there are convergences of interest aimed at achieving peace and security in the Indo-Pacific there are also significant variations.[iv]Other Members of the EAS have different opinion on the evolving Indo-Pacific architecture with China viewing it as a Western driven narrative to contain its rise. In this the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific [AOIP] announced in 2019, which emphasises on ASEAN-led mechanisms to promote regional and sub-regional cooperation, can serve as a guide for the EAS. The AOIP is also intended to be a guiding principle for establishing a cooperative framework in the Indo-Pacific amongst the members for promoting engagement in areas of common interest.
The teleconferenced EAS Senior Officials’ Meeting held on July 20, 2020, chaired by Deputy Foreign Minister Nguyen Quoc Dung from Viet Nam[v]
The EAS is a crucial platform for dialogue and mutually beneficial cooperation in order to address the challenges and uncertainties faced by the region. The fallout from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic would have major socio-economic implications. The EAS needs to devise new directions for collaboration amongst its members in order to effectively respond to this challenge. At the EAS Senior Officials’ Meeting held in July 2020, the EAS partners reaffirmed the importance of ASEAN’s central role in the regional architecture and highly valued Vietnam’s ASEAN Chairmanship in coordinating the bloc and its partners’ efforts to boost cooperation in response to COVID-19, such as the establishment of the ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund and a regional stockpile of medical supplies. ASEAN asked the Member States to help in improving capacity in preventive medicine and in coordinating closely in information and experience sharing, along with assistance in the development and production of COVID-19 vaccines and medicine.[vi] This was also reiterated during the 10th East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held on September 9, 2020, during which the Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to facilitating access to affordable, safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. The Ministers’ also emphasised on advancing partnership to effectively address the adverse socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.[vii]
In the light of emerging differences of views on the Indo-Pacific, at the 14th EAS on November 4, 2019 the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that the EAS is a “…logical platform to promote a free, open, inclusive, transparent, rules-based, peaceful, prosperous Indo-Pacific region, where sovereignty and territorial integrity and the application of international law especially UNCLOS are assured to all States equally….”.The Indian Prime Minister emphasised on the need for building a cooperative and consultative framework by proposing an ‘Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative’ [IPOI].[viii] Through the proposed IPOI, India wants to build a cooperative and collaborative framework amongst interested States to ensure a safe, secure, and stable maritime domain. The IPOI identifies seven basic facets of maritime cooperation and collaboration. These are: (1) Maritime Security; (2) Maritime Ecology; (3) Maritime Resources; (4) Capacity Building and Resource Sharing; (5) Disaster Risk Reduction and Management; (6) Science, Technology and Academic Cooperation; and (7) Trade Connectivity and Maritime Transport. The cooperative framework envisaged through the IPOI shares complementarities with the AOIP’s broad areas of cooperation which includes maritime cooperation, connectivity, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2030, and economic and other areas of cooperation. The synergy between the IPOI and AOIP which stresses on building partnerships for free trade and sustainable use of marine resources would enhance the scope of cooperation which would be crucial in the post-pandemic economic recovery.[ix]
The IPOI announced by Prime Minister Modi at the EAS indicates how this strategic forum for engagement provides a platform for creating partnership to promote inclusivity, transparency, a rules-based international order, while maintain the focus on centrality of ASEAN and ASEAN-led mechanisms which are fundamental to India’s Indo-Pacific construct. Amongst EAS Member States, Australia has welcomed the IPOI and has indicated its interest in working with India to develop this initiative.[x] Japan has also appreciated India’s announcement of the IPOI and confirmed its willingness to discuss concrete cooperation based on the Initiative.[xi] At the 13th India-Japan Foreign Ministers’ Strategic Dialogue held on October 7, 2020, the Japanese side agreed to be the lead partner in the connectivity pillar of the IPOI.[xii]
The need to maintain stability and promote cooperation through a constructive dialogue is the raison d’être of the EAS. Being a Leaders’-led forum, the EAS provides the platform for high-level dialogue to resolve disagreements and build cooperation to overcome challenges. On the occasion of the EAS’s 15th founding anniversary, given the ongoing geopolitical ferment, there is a need to take a relook at and reassess its role in order to build this strategic forum to effective response to the emerging challenges in the region. The IPOI proposed by India is one such framework which in a post COVID-19 era through the ASEAN-led mechanisms such as the EAS could help rebuild growth and ensure stability in the region. India’s approach to its Indo-Pacific vision is based on cooperation and collaboration and the IPOI being an open global initiative would depend on mechanisms such as the EAS to strengthen regional and sub-regional cooperation. A disaggregated approach to the IPOI- in terms of focusing attention on each of its seven pillars may provide one channel for proceeding further.
*Dr. Temjenmeren Ao is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs.
Discliamer : The views expressed are personal
[i]See:// https://diligentias.com/14th-east-asia-summit-is-being-held-in-bangkok-diligent-ias/, Accessed on September 17, 2020.
[ii]East Asia Summit, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australian Government, https://www.dfat.gov.au/international-relations/regional-architecture/eas/Pages/east-asia-summit-eas, Accessed on September 10, 2020.
[iii]Diane K. Mauzy and Brian L. Job, “US Policy in South East Asia: Limited Re-engagement after years of Benign Neglect”, https://www.hks.harvard.edu/fs/pnorris/Acrobat/Burma_Mauzy_Job.pdf, Accessed on September 11, 2020.
[iv]Pradeep Chauhan, Prabir De, Sarabjeet Singh Parmar, and Durairaj Kumarasamy, “Indo-Pacific Cooperation: AOIP and IPOI”, AIC Working Paper, No 3, October 2020, http://aic.ris.org.in/sites/default/files/Publication%20File/AIC%20Working%20Paper%20October%202020.pdf, Accessed on October 14, 2020.
[v]See://https://www.asean2020.vn/xem-chi-tiet1/-/asset_publisher/ynfWm23dDfpd/content/east-asia-summit-senior-officials-meeting-held-online, Accessed on September 17, 2020.
[vi]“East Asia Summit Senior Officials’ Meeting held online”, ASEAN, July 21, 2020, https://www.asean2020.vn/xem-chi-tiet1/-/asset_publisher/ynfWm23dDfpd/content/east-asia-summit-senior-officials-meeting-held-online, Accessed on September 15, 2020.
[vii]“Chairman’s Statement of the 10th East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting”, ASEAN, September 9, 2020, https://asean.org/storage/2020/09/Final-Chairmans-Statement-of-the-10th-East-Asia-Summit-Foreign-Ministers-Meeting.pdf, Accessed on October 15, 2020.
[viii]“Prime Minister’s Speech at the East Asia Summit, 04 November 2019”, Ministry of External Affairs, November 4, 2019, https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/32171/Prime_Ministers_Speech_at_the_East_Asia_Summit_04_November_2019, Accessed on September 10, 2020.
[ix]Pradeep Chauhan, Prabir De, Sarabjeet Singh Parmar, and Durairaj Kumarasamy, “Indo-Pacific Cooperation: AOIP and IPOI”, AIC Working Paper, No 3, October 2020, http://aic.ris.org.in/sites/default/files/Publication%20File/AIC%20Working%20Paper%20October%202020.pdf, Accessed on October 14, 2020.https://www.mea.gov.in/media-briefings.htm?dtl/32007/Transcript_of_Media_Briefing_by_Secretary_East_during_PMs_visit_to_Thailand_November_04_2019, Accessed on October 23, 2020.
[x]“Transcript of Media Briefing by Secretary (East) during PM’s visit to Thailand (November 04, 2019)”, Ministry of External Affairs, November 5, 2019,
[xi]“Joint Statement: First India-Japan 2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministerial Meeting”, PIB, November 30, 2019, https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1594385, Accessed on October 23, 2020.
[xii]“13th India-Japan Foreign Ministers’ Strategic Dialogue”, Ministry of External Affairs, October 7, 2020, https://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/33100/13th_IndiaJapan_Foreign_Ministers_Strategic_Dialogue, Accessed on October 23, 2020.