Summary

The 37th ASEAN Summit, held in Hanoi in mid-November with leaders in virtual attendance, marked the end of an unprecedented year for regional diplomacy amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Vietnam made a success of its year as ASEAN chair, despite the global situation threatening to diminish its agenda. Meetings went ahead as planned, with online diplomacy proving remarkably productive—at November’s summit, at least 80 documents were signed, notably the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade deal.

Vietnam also sought to leverage its once-in-a-decade opportunity as ASEAN chair—a position which rotates between the member states on an annual basis—to shape the regional agenda. As arguably China’s most vocal critic in the South China Sea, Vietnam succeeded in achieving a more unified ASEAN position than in previous years, based on support for international law and multilateral talks. The baton of ASEAN chair is now passed to Brunei—a quieter party in the South China Sea dispute. What challenges lie in store for the bloc in 2021?