United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon talks about China, its key role at the UN and it future role on the world stage with U.S. journalist and university professor Tom Plate. The following is excerpted from ‘Conversations with Ban Ki-Moon: The View from the Top,’ a series of seven two-hour conversations at the secretary general’s residence in New York between 2010-2011. – Editors.
A UNSG’s attitude — pushy or subservient, respectful or resentful — toward the Security Council helps shape who he is at the world organization and how he plans to work. An adversarial relationship might grab the headlines but be internally self-destructive. To be able to bring issues to the attention of the Security Council is one of the few enumerated powers of the SG in the UN Charter, which actually defines the job rather vaguely.
By contrast, the Security Council itself is well defined but has evolved into an odd kind of fossil — though with teeth. Among its five permanent members with their notorious ‘veto’ power are the globe’s Big Two: China and the United States. France, Great Britain and Russia are hanging around, too, of course, trying to hold their own against the reality of recent historical tides (which go by the name of Brazil, India, Germany, Japan, etc.). Taken together, the Big Five comprise Ban Ki-moon’s immediate supervisors — those five, plus the 194 members of the UN General Assembly.
What an easy management structure, right? They don’t report to him, it’s the other way round.
The UN Charter, which came into being in 1945, does not actually state that each of the permanent members gets the “veto power”. But that is the way the media puts it when one or more of the five big ones — China, France, Great Britain, Russia, the United States — vote against a resolution.
Technically it’s not a veto so much as the UN Charter requiring major-power unity for a substantive matter to pass. So even if only one of the big five falls out, the deal falls through completely. So, right, it’s sort of a veto.
Ban speaking: “I have presented ‘responsibility to protect’ as a very important concept for the United Nations today. We call it R2P, responsibility to protect. This concept was adopted in 2005, because we have seen the Rwanda genocide, and we have seen genocide in Srebrenica, Yugoslavia, and we have seen the Cambodia killing fields. But then nothing had been implemented, so when I was campaigning for this office [in 2006], I said publicly that if elected, I will put this concept of responsibility-to-protect into action. But there was strong resistance from member states. Even though leaders agreed to the concept, the problem was in implementing, in translating, this into action. [There was] a lot of resistance.”
“Where does one of your great supporters, China, stand on R2P?”
“China is in the middle. They say ok. They don’t publicly oppose.”
Me asking: “But as you know, they have this doctrine of non-interference in the internal affairs of states, so under that doctrine, the UN had better not be interfering in the internal affairs of states on a preemptive basis.”
The truth is that the U.S. and China are closer together on this basic issue than perhaps either would care to admit. Beijing doesn’t want the UN telling it how to comport itself in the seas around it, and the U.S. is hostile to the idea that its forays into other countries (invasion of Iraq, drone drilling into Pakistan) should require UN Security Council authorization. And neither of them is a big fan of the UNSG being equipped with an always-ready-to-go standing army.
Ban also has advice for [this] rising Asian power.
He remarks: “China needs to harmonize with international standards, but they have taken their own Chinese way … you cannot just disregard rapidly-growing Chinese economic power. As I mentioned, I hope that South Korea will do more globally. But considering just the sheer size of the population and economic wealth of both China and India, they have become, like already, global powers. So I do hope that with all its economic growth China will become more mature.”
“Mature in their democratic ways and in their dealing with international matters.”
I am worried too. “But look at China recently with the People’s Liberation Army saying all the water around it — the so-called South China Sea — is our pond, our lake, a seeming assertion of territoriality that I don’t think international law would support. In response the U.S. upped the profile of its Pacific Fleet. Does that worry you? Do you maybe see China as very immature, and of course the U.S. sometimes seems all too ready to do something militarily. Are you worried about that?”
He shakes his head: “All in all I’m sure that China will adapt very quickly to the international community’s standards. That’s what I hope. Then it will be much easier for the international community to realize resolution of all the disputes involving China.”
One so hopes this prognostication is embraced by history.
“I once asked you why you think Hollywood so loves the Dalai Lama and, of course, for you it’s a no-win thing to get involved in. But it’s interesting that you looked at me and said something like: Part of the problem is that although China is surging economically, its diplomacy is still at a lower level of evolution, that the sophistication of the diplomacy has not really kept pace with the dynamic evolution of the economy. Now that’s a very interesting thought … about how China has been slow to change diplomatically and develop more sophisticated responses to international issues.”
Ban nods in agreement but adds: “They have recently been trying to maintain a higher profile in the diplomatic area. One time when I was attending and negotiating on climate change, it was basically China who spoke out, not only for the interest of the Chinese national situation but also for the benefit of developing countries. So I think many developing countries were standing behind China, and China basically spoke out for their cause. So you will see levels of difference in their diplomatic skills.
“But for me as secretary general, it would be very important to maintain a close relationship with China and get support from the Chinese government. As much as it is true to say almost nothing can be done without strong support of the United States, it is also true to say that without Chinese support, cooperation and participation, it would be extremely difficult to have a smooth functioning of the United Nations.”
“Would you say that 20 or 30 years ago the secretary general’s most important client was the U.S., but today China is as important as the U.S.?”
“Almost as important?”
“Almost as important.”
Ban Ki-moon, the former foreign minister of South Korea, is the 8th secretary general in the UN’s history and only the 2nd from Asia. American journalist Tom Plate, the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, is the author of the ‘Giants of Asia’ series, of which ‘Conversations with Ban Ki-moon’ is the 4th volume. © Thomas Gordon Plate, for Marshall Cavendish International, Singapore.