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27 May, 2012

Dynamics of Emerging New World Order on Full Display at ESCAP Annual Summit

Originally Published: 27 May 2012

The trials, tribulations, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the emerging New World Order and the rise of the Asian Century were on full display at the 68th session of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific held in Bangkok last week.

While the Asian countries see great potential for integrating their enormous social, economic, demographic and cultural potential to improve the quality of their peoples’ lives, they are hugely concerned about being hit by forces outside their control.

This has become a huge risk in a inter-connected world, with serious questions emerging about the downsides of Globalisation Version 1 as the countries make what is being described as the “Final Push” before 2015, when the eight-point Millennium Development Goals are supposed to be met.

Rousing speeches all through the ESCAP session hailed the huge economic potential of Asia and the benefits of regional and sub-regional integration through transportation networks, energy highways, free trade, etc.

All countries outlined plans to avail of the opportunities. Russia said it was making links with Asia a major part of its foreign policy and seeking to develop its resource-rich Eastern region to build these links. Myanmar discussed its post-perestroika investment and economic climate. Indonesia cited its 2011-2025 Master Plan to create development growth corridors right across the far-flung archipelago.

But they also worried about the “complex, multifaceted and simultaneous challenges” such as the Eurozone crisis, rising costs of food and fuel, volatility in currency and commodity markets, widening rich-poverty gaps, environmental degradation, organised crime, and many more.

Similarly, there was no shortage of remedial proposals. ESCAP chief economist Dr Nagesh Kumar raised a number of revolutionary ideas for stabilizing the global economy, such as by negotiating a fixed oil price with the oil-exporting countries, with fluctuations only to be permitted within a certain “band”.

The Iranian delegate called for a “reform of the global financial system and architecture based on the principles of justice, equality, common interest, cooperation and solidarity among states.” He added, “ESCAP member countries deserve to play a more active role in the decision-making process of restructuring and reforming the international financial, monetary and trade structures. We suggest that ESCAP secretariat consider various possible ways and means to achieve this objective.”

All these issues were intensely discussed. Said ESCAP Executive Secretary Dr Noeleen Heyzer, in her concluding remarks, “This Commission session has done more than simply identify the serious challenges affecting our region. Seizing the opportunity of this time of transition, the Commission has responded with a number of strong calls to action – given voice through the far-reaching and even game-changing resolutions that have been passed.”

However, Dr Heyzer did not mention the very important resolution that failed to pass – one that was intended to address the growing ecological threats.

All the delegates, especially the island states and low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, agreed that climate change is a life-and-death threat to their peoples. Much hope was being pinned on the June Rio+ 20 conference to yield an agreement on this.

Yet, the ESCAP delegates capitulated before the United States which, according to one ambassador, “killed the only resolution on the issue of sustainability.”

Claiming that the wording of the draft resolution “pre-judged the outcome of the Rio summit,” the US resisted all efforts to find appropriate language that would facilitate its passage, leading eventually to its withdrawal by its two sponsors, Korea and Japan.

That left the issue of sustainability to be covered only in the final summary report of the commission session. Here, too, the U.S. government recorded its objection, citing the same reason of “problematic language.”

This language refers to the position of Asia Pacific governments for the outcome of Rio+20 to be based on the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” They want to share the “common responsibilities” of alleviating global warming but insist on the “differentiated responsibilities” of making those who have most caused the problem in the first place bear the costs of alleviating it.

The developed countries say have done enough to make up for the past and only want to focus on the future, largely by making China and India bear a larger burden of responsibility. The end result: a long-standing deadlock.

The third challenge to development – geopolitical issues related to militarism, peace and security — was mentioned only in passing just twice during the commission session.

Mr Sarath Amunugama, Senior Minister for International Monetary, cooperation, Sri Lanka, said: “Developed countries knows they cannot afford wars any more. They cannot afford to keep spending like this. That will be a good thing. We will have a more peaceful world. But on the other hand, wars can also stimulate economies. So, do you go for war or do you go for peace?”

Just as he began elaborating, he was interrupted and told that he was running out of time.

The Chinese delegate, too, cited peace as the primary prerequisite for inclusive and sustainable development.

He said: “First, we need to enhance political mutual trust and create a peaceful and stable regional environment. For countries in the Asia Pacific, friendly cooperation is a shared aspiration and peaceful development is a practical need. We should all value peace, resolve differences through consultation and dialogue rather than a zero-sum mentality and confrontational measures. We need to take measures to prevent issues from getting more complicated or bigger.”

In her conclusion, Dr Heyzer said, “The time has come to take our future into our own hands – to rebalance and reset our economies through stronger regional integration, and move our societies towards more inclusive and sustainable development pathways so that there is shared prosperity, social equity, and dignity for all our people and respect for our planet.”

That will not be possible unless the UN system itself first moves to balance and integrate the three totally inter-linked economic, environmental and geopolitical pillars of the development agenda. To claim a lack of mandate to put them all on the table is a prescription for failure.

Indeed, if all the issues raised at the ESCAP session are reorganised into a SWOT analysis, it becomes clear what are the threats, where they originate and what needs to be done next for Asia to become the true determinant of its own future.

One region’s opportunity is about to become another region’s threat. A more assertive and economically powerful Asia definitely poses a huge competitive and geopolitical challenge to the advanced, industrialised countries who will do, and are doing, everything possible to defend their interests.

Four years after her arrival, Dr Heyzer was roundly lauded for working through the diplomatic and political minefield to bring at least some of the issues to the fore. Her term is due for renewal this year, and she anticipates getting an extension in order for her work to be completed.

Hence, if this year’s theme was “regional integration”, next year’s theme will focus on “building resilience.” The game continues.