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The 18th East Asia Summit: Priorities of a Region in Flux

Dr Temjenmeren Ao is Associate Fellow in the Southeast Asia & Oceania Centre at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
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  • September 14, 2023

    The 18th East Asia Summit (EAS) held in Jakarta on 7 September 2023 provided an opportunity for ASEAN member states and the eight non-ASEAN countries to exchange views on issues concerning the region and the world at large. Being a premier forum for strategic dialogue in the Indo-Pacific, the EAS remains critical to advancing closer regional cooperation, at a time of rapid geo-political and geo-economic changes.

    EAS and Its Priorities

    The origins of EAS dates back to the 1990 proposal for an East Asian Economic Grouping (EAEG) popularised by former Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad. This proposal, however, was met with stiff opposition from Japan and the United States. The project was later revived through the ASEAN Plus Three or APT (China, Japan, and South Korea) Summit of Heads of State and Government that first met in Kuala Lumpur in December 1997, and eventually found further expression through the creation of the EAS on 14 December 2005.1

    Since its establishment, the membership of the EAS has increased from the original 16 to 18 countries comprising the ten ASEAN countries, along with Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, the United States, and Russia. With Russia and the US being the last two countries to be admitted into the EAS in 2011, the forum has all the major powers including three of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. This expansion gave the EAS a more open, outward-looking and inclusive character.2

    At the end of 2022, the participating countries in the EAS represented 52.8 per cent of the world population and accounted for 60.4 per cent of the global GDP.3 Being an ASEAN-led regional architecture, the EAS, unlike other regional forums, is inter-regional, consisting of countries from Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Australia. Further, the EAS is the first Asian grouping which includes all the great Asian powers, guided by an open and inclusive regionalism.4

    The EAS being the only leader-led forum in the Indo-Pacific makes it a major platform to discuss the political, security, and economic priorities and challenges being confronted by the region. The EAS since its launch has enabled a platform wherein the participating countries have widened their perspectives beyond their traditional sub-regional focus. There are seven evolving priorities of regional cooperation within the framework of the EAS. These include environment and energy, education, finance, global health including pandemics, environment and disaster management, ASEAN connectivity, and maritime cooperation.5

    With the emerging geo-political and the changing nature of threat being confronted in the Indo-Pacific region, the priorities of the EAS has evolved. During the 17th EAS held on 13 November 2022 in Phnom Penh, top priorities included food and energy security, climate change, the Russian­–Ukraine crisis, concerns over escalating violence and the worsening humanitarian situation in Myanmar, and the situation in the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula.6

    At the 18th EAS, the Leaders’ Declaration on ASEAN as an Epicentrum of Growth was adopted. Discussions were held on building resilience against emerging challenges and future shocks through cooperation on enhancing energy security and food security, maintaining financial stability, and strengthening regional health architecture. The meeting also reviewed the implementation of the EAS Plan of Action (POA) 2018–2022 and adopted the EAS POA (2024–2028).

    The POA for the next five years outlines the priorities that include efforts on the mainstreaming and implementation of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). The POA reinforces the centrality of ASEAN and ASEAN-led mechanisms as the driving force within the EAS. It lays emphasis on strengthening partnerships, through cross-sectoral collaborations that includes efforts in furthering the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.7

    A Region in Flux

    Since the establishment of the EAS in 2005, the global economy has witnessed major shocks some of which include the global financial crisis, the socio-economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the impact of the ongoing war in Ukraine on global food and energy security.  The priorities as outlined through the EAS Leaders’ Declaration indicates a consensus for a stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. Issues confronted by the region such as energy and environment, finance, education, cooperation in terms of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), health crisis including pandemics and its socio-economic implications, issues of connectivity, and traditional and non-traditional security threats from terrorism to piracy at sea underscores the significance of the EAS.

    However, strengthening the EAS as a forum for dialogue and cooperation on a wide spectrum of strategic, political, and economic matters of common interest and concern, remains complex. This stems from the existing and ever-evolving multi-faceted threats and challenges which get compounded through the intense geo-political and geo-economic discourse being witnessed in the region. In his opening remarks at the 18th EAS, Indonesian President Jokowi urged the leaders to make the forum a place to strengthen collaboration and cooperation and not sharpen rivalries.8

    While the EAS participating countries share a common perspective aimed at achieving peace and security in the Indo-Pacific, ongoing contestations limits cooperative and collaborative framework as envisaged originally. In the light of the emerging differences in the region, at the 14th EAS on 4 November 2019, 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….9

    Being the only multilateral platform that brings together the leaders of ASEAN member states and the other major regional powers, it makes the EAS the most balanced amongst the other existing regional structures. However, the nature of the relations amongst the EAS participating countries, marked by confrontation and contestations, has had its impact on its efficacy and effectiveness.

    The deepening geo-political divide being witnessed today raises concern on the relevance of the EAS in addressing issues of human security challenges as a consequent of the socio-economic fallout from the COVID-19 and the ongoing war in Ukraine.  These challenges which requires a collaborative and consultative effort, get derailed as a consequence of ongoing contestations amongst countries over resources and territory to the ongoing strategic rivalry being witnessed in the Indo-Pacific region.


    The 18th EAS was an attempt to strengthen the efficacy and effectiveness of the institution by emphasising on an international community, build on cooperation without division and confrontation. This year’s summit saw the adoption of the EAS Leaders’ Statement on Maintaining and Promoting the Region as an Epicenter of Growth with comprehensive discussions on regional and international issues. The reinforcement of ASEAN Centrality and Unity as well as the mainstreaming of the AOIP are positive outcomes as they aligned with the visons on the Indo-Pacific of the respective EAS participating countries.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.