It says something about the salience that Myanmar’s non-participation brought to the just-concluded Asean summit – a result of the group’s unwillingness to tolerate sustained recalcitrance by the ruling military junta – that it threatened to overshadow other issues at the virtual event hosted by Brunei, the Asean chair. These included important decisions on preparing for the region’s post-pandemic recovery, the digital future of the Asean community, trade and economic engagements – including the addition of the United Kingdom as a new dialogue partner – and much more. Some will find relief that, for once, the South China Sea issue did not dominate or disrupt the meeting, as happened in 2012.
At the East Asia Summit, the segment where Asean leaders sat down with counterparts from key dialogue-partner countries, the air was much warmer than at some recent summits. The United States joined in at the highest level after a four-year gap, with President Joe Biden in attendance. While there was some one-upmanship between the US and China, for example, on competing narratives around Covid-19 vaccine supply and distribution, the mood was cordial. Indeed, the two struck a constructive tone on issues such as public health cooperation, combating climate change, and even co-sponsoring a statement on sustainable recovery. The Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific received robust backing all round.