By Liao Bowen
Focusing on the theme of “galvanizing multilateral efforts for poverty eradication, quality education, climate action and inclusion,” the general debate of the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) was held at UN headquarters in New York City from September 24 to 30, 2019. Representatives from 192 of the 193 member states shared opinions on a wide array of global issues during the meeting.
Convening from September to December each year, the UNGA provides all members an equal opportunity to discuss international issues. The general forum routinely passes through two phases: general debate and deliberations on items included in the agenda. During the general debate this year, delegates from ASEAN member states adopted a united stand as they voiced opinions on issues like multilateralism, climate change and maritime cooperation.
Multilateralism was the central theme of the Southeast Asian stand at the UNGA general debate. In the context of continued rise of anti-globalization and nationalist sentiment in some regions, the countries stressed that multilateralism and free trade serve the interests of most of the world’s population.
The strong headwinds against multilateralism have been accompanied by deadly conflicts, disregard for international humanitarian law, tension between nations, nationalism, intolerance and xenophobia, which are undermining faith in international cooperation, remarked UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the 43rd Annual Meeting of Ministers for Foreign Affairs of the G77 and China, a gathering held alongside the general debate. Guterres pointed out that the G77 and China find solidarity on the frontlines of multilateralism and support a strong UN and that their support for effective and just multilateralism is more important than ever.
“Unilateralism and protectionism are posing major threats to the international order,” declared Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi during the general debate. “With the world’s future at stake, China has never been and will never be an onlooker. The Chinese people and the peoples of other countries have always treated each other with sincerity and rendered each other mutual support, and China and other countries have increasingly become stakeholders sharing a common future.” He stressed that facing international uncertainties, China will maintain stability and continuity of its foreign policy and continue to pursue the major country diplomacy with distinct Chinese features. China will continue to safeguard world peace and prosperity and promote development and advancement of humankind, the diplomat added.
Secretary for Foreign Affairs of the Philippines Teodoro Locsin believes that the entire point of multilateralism is to protect and safeguard the weak and the many against the strong and the few. Multilateralism is not owned by a select club of member states; it is by and for all—or no one, he said.
It has become an onerous task to convince all nations, large and small, that in the face of present tumultuous challenges, there is zero space for a winner-take- all and zero-sum mentality, emphasized Thailand’s Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai at the general debate. He also warned, “We shall sink or swim together, not alone, and not at the expense of the drowning of others. It is not such a bad cliché at this juncture to say that we are in the same boat, and we are all in it together.”
“All the time new regulations are being introduced which are detrimental to the development of poor countries,” remarked Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on the topic of free trade. “This is because proposals on rules and regulations are made by the rich, often in secret.” Now that the whole world has become a market for everyone, trade wars will only hinder the potential for everyone to earn wealth, he added.
The importance of an open global economy and regional cooperation among Asian countries was also hammered by Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong in his statement at the UNGA general debate. He illustrated that China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001 presaged two decades of dramatic economic growth that lifted more than 850 million people out of poverty. India too has grown steadily since the 1990s as its economy has gradually liberalized and become more intertwined with its partners. Earlier, smaller economies in East and Southeast Asia including Singapore traveled a similar path that many developing countries in Africa and Latin America are now taking.
“A multilateral approach is not an option but a necessity to deal with complex global problems,” he opined. “Growth requires trade, investment and technology. All these activities depend on working with others within an open and orderly international framework of rules.”
Maritime Cooperation Benefits Everyone
Maritime cooperation was another topic of shared concern among ASEAN member nations, especially those bordering the South China Sea. Rich in oil, gas and other recourses, the South China Sea, alongside the Strait of Malacca, ranks as one of the world’s most important shipping lanes. Collaboration on sustainable utilization of marine resources contributes to peace and stability in the region, serving the common interests of surrounding countries.
Despite twists and turns brought by South China Sea Arbitration, the China- Philippines relationship has been consolidated through in-depth exchange on issues of mutual concern since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016. A memorandum of understanding on oil and gas has been signed between the two sides, enabling joint development of resources to move forward without any compromise or concessions of respective sovereign and international rights, according to Teodoro Locsin.
“The South China Sea Code of Conduct is a code of reality,” remarked the Philippine foreign minister. “All parties have built so much and achieved such material progress that none of us, nor any outside power, will risk losing the richest market in the world. So, it is a code of live and let live with China. We’ve all asked of each other—ASEAN members and China—for mutual restraint and complete respect for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS] , to which we are signatories binding ourselves unqualifiedly thereto.” Talk before fighting is what the UN is about; and if talk fails, talk some more, Locsin added.
Similarly, when addressing the UNGA general debate, Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh urged relevant parties in the South China Sea to respect international law, especially UNCLOS , and to settle disputes by peaceful means.
According to Pramudwinai, as chair of ASEAN for the year 2019, Thailand has adopted the theme “Advancing Partnership for Sustainability” as the core focus of ASEAN’s goals and mission. “Imbedded in the notion of partnership and sustainability is the fundamental requirement of a mindset to turn conflict into cooperation,” he illustrated, adding that each nation, whether individually or collectively, must foster a “people-centric” development model that aims to leave no one behind.
After more than five decades of development, ASEAN now wields a stronger voice in the international community. Backed by a thriving economy, the unified stance of its member states is vital to safeguarding the countries’ common interests and coping with multiple global challenges. The 10th ASEAN-UN Summit was held in earlyNovember in Thailand. The organization will continue to work together with the UN and contribute to world peace and development.