UN General Assembly Debate Wraps Up, Focusing Heavily on Trade Climate, Environmental Action

4 October 2018

The annualgatheringof high-level officials in New York last week for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) led to the continuation of several discussions related to trade and climate action, both within and on the sidelines of the main gathering. The annual general debate wrapped up on 1 October.

Lawmakers and policymakers had congregated at UN headquarters for a host of meetings and debates since mid-September, while various ministers and senior officials also participated in trade-related meetings on the margins.

The Assembly’s general debate, which kicked off on 25 September and was entitled “Making the United Nations Relevant to All People: Global Leadership and Shared Responsibilities for Peaceful, Equitable, and Sustainable Societies,” featured several addresses covering the global trading system, a topic that is expected to take centre stage at other international forums through the rest of the year.

Tariffs, climate, WTO reform at forefront

US President Donald Trump’s address at the UNGA on 25 September, in which he expressed the need for fair and reciprocal trade, also made reference to recent tensions with China. “The United States has just announced tariffs on another US$200 billion in Chinese-made goods for a total, so far, of US$250 billion. I have great respect and affection for my friend, President Xi [Jinping], but I have made clear our trade imbalance is just not acceptable. China’s market distortions and the way they deal cannot be tolerated,” he stated. (See Bridges Weekly, 27 September 2018)

China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi addressed the Assembly later in the week, highlighting Beijing’s commitment to the WTO and its economic development agenda commonly known as the Belt and Road initiative. Wang also cautioned that “protectionism will only hurt oneself,” and that “international trade is complementary and win‑win by nature."

His speech came after a visit to the Council on Foreign Relations, also based in New York, where he affirmed China’s role as a leader in economic growth.

“We want to invite people in to share China’s opportunities,” he said, in anticipation of China’s first International Import Expo this upcoming November in Shanghai. “The Chinese economy is shifting from high-speed growth to high-quality growth. China is opening wider, bringing more development opportunities to the world.”

Several other leaders used the UNGA to voice their concerns over recent trade developments between the US and China and what it could mean for other economies. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad referred to the tensions during his address, stating that “the rest of the world is feeling the pain.” Ghanaian President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo also spoke on the subject, saying that “the consequences [of trade tensions between the US and China] will affect those who have had no say, including small countries like Ghana. These events provide proof if some were needed, that ours is an interdependent world.”

Ahead of the annual WTO Public Forum that is underway in Geneva this week, many leaders also expressed concern or enthusiasm over updating global trade rules, a topic that is expected to be a recurring theme in the months to come, including at a ministers’ level meeting of about a dozen countries or country groups in Canada later this month. The EU, US, and Japan also released a trilateral statement covering WTO reform and other topics earlier during the UNGA. (See Bridges Weekly, 27 September 2018)

Some national leaders and ministers in New York also reaffirmed the importance of further integrating climate change initiatives within the trade policy space.

In his speech to the Assembly, French President Emmanuel Macron encouraged all nations not to sign any trade agreements with nations that are not parties to the Paris Climate Change Accord, while also calling for the mandatory integration of environmental and social provisions within new trade instruments.

“Let’s sign no more trade agreements with powers that don’t respect the Paris Agreement. Let’s ensure our trade commitments include our environmental and social obligations,” said Macron. He also warned earlier in the speech against protectionism and unilateral actions to tackle trade tensions, highlighting instead the importance of “common rules adapted to today’s reality.”

This climate focus comes as a continuation of UNGA 72, which the then-President of the General Assembly, Miroslav Lajčák, deemed the most frequently mentioned item during last year’s debate.

The UNGA took place alongside Global Goals Week 2018, where several national leaders also participated in conferences such as the International Conference on Sustainable Development and the One Planet Summit, targeted at promoting sustainable development through international programmes or initiatives, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  The One Planet Summit, hosted by Macron, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, and UN Special Envoy for Climate Action, Michael R. Bloomberg joined heads of state and non-state actors to discuss the implementation of cross-border commitments such as the international mobilisation of development banks and institutional investors.

“On the margins” meetings tackle trade, economic cooperation

Several meetings on the margins related to trade also took place during the week, including talks between the countries forming the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Pacific Alliance, Mercosur and possible trade agreement partners, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

"At all these meetings, there is still strong consensus and political will to move forward on free trade agreements," stated Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan to the Straits Times after participating in meetings in different configurations with all four groups. "If [Singapore] makes significant progress with Mercosur and the Pacific Alliance, which builds us new trade links to South America (and) Latin America, this is an affirmation that we still believe in free trade and we are proceeding, despite the apparent withdrawals of bigger countries who have perhaps more options," the Singaporean official continued.

The Pacific Alliance, made up of Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, is looking to both deeper trade and investment ties internally, while bringing on board a set of prospective associate members, namely Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Singapore. South Korea will also become a candidate for associate member status, once negotiations with the other four countries are completed. (See Bridges Weekly, 26 July 2018)

Pacific Alliance leaders held a panel in New York that focused on investment opportunities within their countries, along with the goals for the future. Ministers from the group also met with their ASEAN counterparts to explore avenues for joint work, building on an existing plan that deals with economic cooperation, education, and small and medium-sized enterprises, among others.

The planned RCEP consists of ASEAN members Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Laos, and Vietnam, along with their six FTA partners Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. Negotiations are ongoing, with the goal of endorsing a “package of outcomes” this year, however several countries expressed optimism about the trade accord at the UNGA.

“In addition to Japan’s commitment to the World Trade Organization, which is a given, I will make all-out efforts towards negotiations on the RCEP, which will give rise to an enormous free-trade area in East Asia,” said Prime Minster Shinzo Abe during his address to the Assembly. 

ICTSD reporting; “China's Top Diplomat Rebukes Trump's Trade Policy at UN,” BLOOMBERG, 28 September 2018; “UN General Assembly: Chinese FM Wang Yi champions multilateralism in speech,” CGTN, 29 September 2018; “Free trade, multilateralism, cyberspace top concerns at UN General Assembly, Minister Vivian Balakrishnan tells Singapore media,” THE STRAITS TIMES, 30 September 2018; “Free trade and strengthening ties: Abe’s speech to U.N.,” THE JAPAN TIMES, 26 September 2018.

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