TOKYO -- The United Nations General Assembly opened with U.S. President Donald Trump throwing barbs at China, which were promptly ignored by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
But tensions between the world's two biggest economies show no sign of relenting, and other Asian countries are under pressure to pick a side. At last week's meeting, most leaders chose to sit on the fence.
Asian leaders declined to use their annual addresses to criticize China's initial handling of the coronavirus, and also affirmed their support for the UN and multilateralism, which the U.S. under Trump has turned away from.
"Several of the Southeast Asian states, in particular the Philippines, have been using these speeches to continue their strategy of hedging between the United States and China," said Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Hedging may be the safest option for a region where territorial disputes may become the setting of a proxy conflict between the U.S. and China. Vietnam, this year's chair of the Association of Southeast Nations, called on parties in the South China Sea to exercise restraint and act in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
"When elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled flat," said Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
As claimant countries to the South China Sea have battled the coronavirus, China has intensified its land reclamation and militarization of the disputed waters. This summer, more Chinese aircraft have ventured over Taiwan and Japan's Senkaku Islands (which are claimed by Beijing, and known as the Diaoyu islands in China), while the U.S. sent aircraft carriers for drills in the South China Sea for the first time since 2014.
"The UNGA offers a good platform to raise important issues that affect not only particular countries, but may also impact on regional, if not global, order and stability," said Lucio B. Pitlo III, a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation in the Philippines.
"In this case, [Duterte] stressed growing concern about the acrimonious 'word war' between the U.S. and China and how it may worryingly graduate into a nuclear war that may be sparked by an incident over the South China Sea," Pitlo added.
Speaking on the first day of the General Assembly, Duterte brought up the award granted to the Philippines in 2016 by a tribunal arbitrating its territorial dispute with China.
"The award is now part of international law," Duterte said. "We firmly reject attempts to undermine it." The affirmation came as a surprise from Duterte, who in July said China was already "in possession" of the disputed territories.
Perhaps the earliest legal action the UN will see this session regarding the South China Sea will be brought by Malaysia or the Philippines over the latter's claim to the region of Sabah. After a diplomatic row over Twitter, each country summoned the other's ambassador for a demarche. Malaysia ultimately submitted a note verbale to the UN to reject the Philippines' claim.
Aside from pleas for restraint, Asian leaders requested an equitable distribution of a potential coronavirus vaccine, given the possibility that either the U.S. or China may develop a viable vaccine first. Trump, who in his speech referred to COVID-19 as "the China virus," has accused the World Health Organization of helping China to cover up the extent of the disease.
Yoshihide Suga, the new prime minister of Japan, said the UN is "in need of neutral and fair governance more than ever" and volunteered support for review and reform of not only the WHO but also the Security Council. Inclusion as a permanent member of the Security Council has long been a crusade for Japan at the UN.
Xi, on the other hand, said the vaccines currently in clinical trials in China would be made a "global public good" and distributed to developing countries "on a priority basis."
But for countries caught between the two large powers, multilateral institutions such as the UN are still a place of refuge. Suga highlighted Japan's contributions to the ASEAN coronavirus response, and South Korean Prime Minister Moon Jae-in proposed a Northeast Asia center for infectious disease control that would include North Korea.
"The UN's idea of inclusive multilateralism will first be tested by whether it can distribute COVID-19 vaccines to all nations or not," said Moon.