The sixty-eighth session of the United Nations General Assembly opened on 17 September at the Headquarter in New York. Chaired by John William Ashe, the former ambassador to the United Nations for Antigua and Barbuda, the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung was among the world leaders who joined the general debate and spoke candidly on 28 September how the humanity yearns for a world that should be free from conflict, war, and hunger. Dung’s speech touched upon Vietnam’s experience in carrying out the Millennium Development Goals and highlighted Vietnam’s stance on major international issues including solutions for peace and security, and the post-2015 UN development agenda in the face of global challenges.
The world needs to remember that Vietnam is the only country which successfully fought for over decades the French, Japanese, Chinaese and the United States and earned its freedom. But like the Japanese after World War II who rebuilt the nation from the devastations of the War and created a new nation in a short time, the Vietnamese also displayed tough dynamism and valour to make Vietnam to what it is today, commanding respect of the world. It is a moment of pride for the Vietnamese people that few days after Prime Minister Dung made the famous speech at the United Nations General Assembly, the nation lost its brilliant and ruthless self-taught General Vo Nguyen Giap who drove the French out of Vietnam to free it from colonial rule and later forced the Americans to abandon their grueling effort to save the country from communism. Gen Giap died at the ripe age of 102. The Vietnamese people salute the great soldier.
The theme of the 68th Assembly was “The Post 2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage”. As the Chair said, embarking on the post-2015 development agenda required levels of collaboration among all stakeholders. Member States and other stakeholders were encouraged to reflect on new and emerging development challenges and their implications for the two major objectives of the post-2015 Development Agenda: overcoming poverty and insecurity, and ensuring sustainable development. The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) ranged from reducing extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and provides for universal primary school education. The target to achieve these goals has been set at 2015.
Two years after the Vietnam War ended, Vietnam joined the United Nations on 20 September 1977, making it the 149th member state of the UN. Since then the UN has become a partner in Vietnam’s determination in making constructive contribution to the world at the global stage. In the early years after it emerged victorious from fighting France and then the United States for its freedom, its economy was in shambles and it took some time of hard work and perseverance to revive the country’s economy. The UN agencies extended assistance to Vietnam in its efforts of post-war reconstruction. As its rebuilding efforts in the form of ‘doi moi’ (renovation) reforms began to take shape, the UN connected Vietnam with international expertise, knowledge and technical assistance to support Vietnam in its move towards achieving developmental progress.
Since then, Vietnam has made impressive progress towards achieving the MDGs and has been successful in meeting some of them such as eradication of extreme hunger and poverty way ahead of the 2015 deadline. Vietnam is on track to meet several other goals. The United Nations Development Programme warns that Vietnam must not sit on its laurels and must work further to sustain progress so that rising disparities stemming from its transition to market economy are eliminated. As Vietnam’s economy gets integrated to the economies of the Asean member states and East Asia, it faces new challenges such as meeting the increase in the demand for energy, higher education standards and skilled workers, all of which appear to be outpacing growth. This is a gigantic task for Vietnam to solve these new contradictions which have resulted from this development. These contradictions are in the form of an increase in social inequality, especially between rural and urban areas, and a weakening of the welfare system.
In pursuance of its goals to achieve prosperity, Vietnam has made the most impressive progress on towards poverty reduction. Prime Minister Dung mentioned that in 1993, the poverty rate was 58.1 percent. Vietnam successfully reduced this to an estimated rate of 14.5 percent in 2008 or by 75 percent. Similarly, the food poverty rate reduced by more than two-thirds, from 24.9 percent in 1993 to 6.9 percent in 2008. What is noteworthy is poverty has been alleviated among all demographic groups, in urban and rural areas, and across geographical regions. Reduction of malnutrition is another significant achievement, which fell from 41 percent to 11.7 percent in 2011.
In a passionate address, Prime Minister Dung appealed to the world leaders to make efforts to resolve conflicts, disputes and war that are plaguing many regions of the world. What is more disturbing is that even while world economy is growing, billions of people are still suffering from abject poverty. Notwithstanding the significant contribution that science and technology has made to the human development, natural disasters, epidemics and pollution continue to pose challenges whose solutions still remain eluded. He reminded the world leaders of the enormous responsibility that are before them to address to these challenges.
Prime Minister Dung did not miss the opportunity to remind the world of the futility of wars that have destroyed many civilizations. Even after the use atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the World War II, though the world has not seen another such experience, the world sits always on the edge of a possible precipice as there are some rogue states that do not rule out such possibility. Yet, nuclear weapons have failed as a deterrent to other conflicts and wars of other nature. The protracted war in Vietnam that took away millions of lives and produced devastating consequences is a clear example of the futility of war. Though efforts for peace are not abandoned, the world does not seem to have learnt any lesson from the past as violence in the Middle East and North Africa are matters of concern. Syria’s suspected use of chemical weapons is another issue of worry. Prime Minister Dung appropriately used the forum to urge the world leaders to make efforts to find solutions to eliminate chemical weapons in accordance with international law and UN resolutions.
There are other troubled spots, which if not handled carefully, can escalate into some kind of conflagration at the regional level with scope to develop into global scale conflict. In the Northeast Asia, North Korea’s nuclear weapon program remains a big destabilizing factor to East Asian security and stability. Territorial disputes in East China and South China Sea with many Asian countries making conflicting claims contain the seeds for a potential conflict. An accident even by mistake could trigger conflict and even war.
Over half of the world’s shipping passes through the East Sea. Therefore maintaining maritime security and freedom of navigation is critical for securing maritime commerce. Prime Minister Dung underlined Vietnam’s pursuance of the policy of peaceful resolution of disputes to defend the legitimate interest and fully respect those of the global community, in accordance with international law, the 1982 UNCLOS, the Declaration of the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea and efforts towards a Code of Conduct. Though Prime Minister Dung avoided directly mentioning China, it is all known that Vietnam and the Philippines are the two countries that have the biggest problems with China over the claims over South China Sea. Indeed, China has been bullying almost all the ASEAN member countries by flexing its military muscle to subdue the relatively smaller and less powerful ASEAN nations. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Dung had raised this issue at the Shangri-La Dialogue and re-stressed the imperatives of reducing strategic distrust between the major powers so that the potentials of a conflict could be reduced.
Indeed, at least two countries – Vietnam and the Philippines – have been vocal in drawing attention of the world to the explosive flashpoints existing over the South China Sea as these two are major adversaries. Prime Minister Dung did not even spare China that it has disputes with Japan over the East China Sea that is escalating over time and underscored the need to resolve them early and peacefully. The world needs to take note, therefore, that the entire Western pacific is caught in a conflict situation as a result of China’s aggressive policies and actions. Prime Minister Dung’s drawing attention of the world leaders to the messy situation created in the Western Pacific because of China’s aggressive posture implies that the US needs to rethink its Middle East strategy and give more attention to its Asia ‘pivot’ policy, which seems to be losing some of its shine lately because of domestic problems in the US.
Where does India stand in these developing issues? Being an aspiring Asian power, India cannot shirk responsibility from eschewing a leadership role in Asian affairs and ought to take tough position on regional matters, if not to counter-balance China, at least in conformity with global norms. India has strategic partnerships with both Japan and Vietnam. Japan and Vietnam are too strategic partners. There are a lot of convergences of interests between the three countries in the economic and security/strategic domains. Whether China is the driving force for this triangular relationship cannot be conclusively said but what can be said with certain conviction is that China’s display of aggression and openly declaring South China Sea as one of its “core” interests causes considerable disquiet in Asia. This calls for other Asian nations to come together to form a front to meet this China challenge. This is desirable so that peace and stability is maintained in Asia.
( The writer, Dr. Rajaram Panda is Guest Faculty at the Centre for Japanese Studies and Centre for Korean Studies, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, JNU, New Delhi. He is also Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. E-mail: email@example.com