Obama urges China, Russia to pursue diplomatic solutions

At the UN, Mr Barack Obama cast Russia's annexation of Crimea and Chinese aggression in the South China Sea as attempts to forsake the world order established over 70 years ago by the assembly.
At the UN, Mr Barack Obama cast Russia's annexation of Crimea and Chinese aggression in the South China Sea as attempts to forsake the world order established over 70 years ago by the assembly.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

US leader criticises both nations in UN speech for aggressive actions

United States President Barack Obama delivered blunt criticisms of China and Russia at the United Nations General Assembly in New York yesterday, saying large nations had a greater obligation than small ones to engage in diplomacy and observe international laws.

Speaking before Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin took the stage to deliver their own addresses, Mr Obama voiced his objections to the actions China was taking in the South China Sea, and Russia was taking in Ukraine.

He cast Russia's annexation of Crimea, and Chinese aggression in the South China Sea as attempts to forsake the world order established over 70 years ago by the United Nations, in favour of pre-World War II notions of might is right.

"Diplomacy is hard, the outcomes are sometimes unsatisfying, and it is rarely politically popular," Mr Obama told world leaders at the opening session of the general debate of the 70th session of the UN assembly. But I believe the leaders of large nations, in particular, have the obligation to take these risks, precisely because we are strong enough to protect our interests if, and when, diplomacy fails."

He used the recent landmark Iran nuclear deal, which lifts long-term sanctions on Iran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear programme, as an example of what can be achieved when the international system is allowed to work as it should.

In contrast, he pointed to the instability in Ukraine and the damaging effects of sanctions in Russia that followed after Crimea was annexed.

Said Mr Obama: "Imagine if, instead, Russia had engaged in true diplomacy and worked with Ukraine and the international community to ensure its interests were protected. That would be better for Ukraine but also for Russia, and better for the world, which is why we continue to press for this crisis to be resolved... not because we want to isolate Russia, but because we want a strong Russia to work with us, to strengthen the international system as a whole."

As for the South China Sea, Mr Obama said the US made no claims to territory there, but had an interest in "upholding the basic principles of freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce, and in resolving disputes through international law, not the law of force".

Then, referencing the positive example of some smaller nations, he said: "From Singapore to Colombia to Senegal, facts show that nations succeed when they pursue an inclusive peace and prosperity within their borders, and work cooperatively with countries beyond their borders."

Mr Obama was speaking at what is one of the most closely watched UN summits in recent years, given the line-up of speakers. Mr Xi is making his UN debut, while Mr Putin is appearing at the meeting for the first time in a decade.

At the opening of the session, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon similarly laid out a list of difficult global challenges, and urged more action from world leaders.

And while he stressed the need for diplomacy, he also made an urgent plea for funding.

"The world continues to squander trillions in military funding," he said. "Why is it easier to find the money to destroy people and the planet than to protect them?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 29, 2015, with the headline 'Obama urges China, Russia to pursue diplomatic solutions'. Print Edition | Subscribe