The Latest on Southeast Asia: September 29, 2022

The 77th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) concluded in New York on September 27 under the theme “A watershed moment: transformative solutions to interlocking challenges.” Climate change, pandemic recovery, and the war in Ukraine featured prominently in speeches by world leaders, many of whom were able to attend in person for the first time in two years.

Philippine president Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. attended UNGA in person, becoming the first leader of the Philippines to address the body since President Benigno Aquino III in 2010. His speech focused on the Philippines’ foreign policy priorities and the country’s position within regional great power competition. In particular, Marcos Jr. stressed the Philippines’ commitment to the “rules-based international order” and identified four challenges to the global community: climate change, the development of advanced technologies, widening geopolitical polarities, and ongoing inequality between and within nations. In addition to the General Debate, Marcos Jr. also attended multiple events with the U.S. business community and other stakeholders, including with the Asia Society and the New York Stock Exchange. During his bilateral meeting with President Biden, the leaders reaffirmed their support for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and the peaceful resolution of disputes.

Marcos Jr.’s priorities during his visit to New York indicate that multilateralism will likely be a focus of his administration. Recognizing the importance of securing international support for the Philippines’ foreign policy goals, Marcos Jr. has appointed career diplomat Enrique Manalo as secretary of foreign affairs; Manalo previously served as the country’s ambassador to the United Kingdom and permanent representative to the UN. Marcos Jr.’s decision to visit Indonesia and Singapore, states with significant influence in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), earlier in September on his first overseas trip also indicates his intent to strengthen the Philippines’ trade and economic relationship with other Southeast Asian countries.

Malaysian prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob also addressed UNGA, becoming the first leader to do so in Malaysia’s national language. In his remarks, he called for the establishment of an international monetary cooperation mechanism, greater climate financing from developed countries, and the creation of a sea route corridor to ship grain from Ukraine to address food security. Ismail Sabri also criticized the UN Security Council for failing to take action on the ongoing conflict in Myanmar and choosing to defer the matter to ASEAN, calling the situation saddening and disappointing. He said that ASEAN’s Five Point Consensus, on which there has been little to no progress since being established in May 2021, needs to be given “a new lease on life” under a clearer framework, time frame, and end goal. No representative from either government in Myanmar—the junta government or the National Unity Government—addressed UNGA. Thai deputy prime minister and foreign minister Don Pramudwinai, who visited New York in place of suspended Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, in his speech also called on “all parties in Myanmar to urgently take steps to deescalate and engage in meaningful talks.”

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