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No substitute for cooperation in sustainable development

Updated: Jul 24, 2020

In one generation, we have witnessed the economic ascendancy of Asia, improving the lives of hundreds of millions, but we are now facing an unprecedented challenge. Not only is there a twin health and economic crisis, but the long-standing international order has been weakened at the very time we need it to underpin our response to climate change and ease rising geo-political tensions. At risk is the prosperity achieved and peace kept despite all odds. We need to reimagine how to build cooperation between governments, businesses and our communities in Asia-Pacific to build back as a stronger, smarter and anti-fragile region. When the immediate health crisis of COVID-19 passes, climate change, geopolitical rivalry and populist demands to dismantle globalization will still be here. As these are common challenges, we must find a new way to work together as a region and contribute to global solutions, putting no nation first and no nation last. There is no return to old normal.

We need pragmatic solutions to these challenges, to keep what works and to address what won’t be sustainable in the context of the new normal. Businesses of our region know that it was open markets for trade and investment, backed up by predictable rules and norms of international cooperation that made the rise of Asia possible. It is not in our interests to unravel globalization, decouple supply chains or undermine organizations built for the purpose of international cooperation. Neither is it in our interests for free trade to be replaced by a new mercantilism, in which large countries wield asymmetric power and dominate global economic connectivity. But it is in our immediate and long-term interest to re-examine our old business models driven by profit lines and without internalization of social and environmental responsibilities.

To restore Asia’s prosperity and to share the benefits with all, we need more economic diversification and liberalization, not less. Luckily, we have prospective new partnership agreements offering greater market opportunities and improved standards in important fields such as digital technology, investment and intellectual property. While not every country will be ready to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) or the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) from the get-go, all are welcome when they are ready. Asia and the Pacific have most benefited from its open regionalism approach and can and should continue to do so.

In building back better, we must ensure our economies become more efficient at protecting the environment and strengthening communities. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide an integrated vision of what we must do. Our national development plans need to provide the road maps for how. We can succeed if we harness the collective leadership of governments, businesses and civil society. This is not just about doing the right thing, it is about survival. If we do not act, climate change could become an existential threat to the next generation.

Investing in more efficient and sustainable infrastructure and the new industries that will ensure Asia’s future prosperity will require a massive amount of finance. ESCAP estimates an additional investment of US$1.5 trillion is needed for the region to achieve the SDGs. This is not beyond the capabilities of governments, multilateral development banks and the private sector combined. Rebuilding after the COVID-19 crisis offers us a unique opportunity to embed more sustainable and inclusive solutions as we go forward, as outlined in ESCAP’s Framework. This is about much more than just shifting towards renewable energy or more efficient consumption, as important as they are. We also need to realign the trading and investment systems, build better food supply chains and smartly design cities, transport and logistics, taking much more advantage of new technologies and ensuring the benefits reach everyone.

At the end of the day, reimagining how we act as a region is all about putting people first. It is about the hopes and dreams of children in Bangladesh, China, Indonesia and all countries across the rich diversity of our region. Governments, as potent as they are, cannot alone deliver the future our children deserve. We are going to need to work together, business, civil society and governments, to rebuild and to rethink. The ESCAP Sustainable Business Networkwelcomes corporate leaders in sustainability to join us in our advocacy, advice and practical actions to achieve the SDGs across Asia and the Pacific.

For the next generation, beyond the current crisis, the old world thinking of great power games, trade wars and economic coercion simply cannot provide sustainable solutions to the global risks we are facing. To work together, we need rules-based norms at the international level and a true commitment to protecting people and planet, or we are doomed to fall back into law of the jungle. This is not wishful thinking, as cooperative and collaborative approaches pulled us from many tight spots in the past. As we are now facing the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression and the road ahead looks bumpy, we cannot afford not to cooperate. In fact, we must strive to cooperate even better than ever if we are to conquer the crisis. Asia, it’s our century and cooperation must be our choice.

Published by UNESCAP, July 10, 2020

David Morris, Vice President of ESCAP Sustainable Business Network

Mia Mikic, Director, Trade Investment and Innovation Division, ESCAP

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