On Sept. 21 and 22, U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke during general debate in the 76th session of the UN General Assembly. Both speeches received praise from the international community. Developing nations hailed the U.S. for promising to donate 500 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine globally, and saluted China for pledging it would not build new coal-fired power plants overseas. More broadly, the Chinese and U.S. leaders laid out different visions of the international political order.
Before comparing the two leaders’ speeches, it will help to compare some changes in the two countries’ foreign policies. Compared with Donald Trump’s UN speech last year, Biden sounded much milder. He didn’t name and shame China or the UN. Last year, talking about the spread of the novel coronavirus, Trump demanded that the UN hold China accountable for its actions. For his part, Xi avoided open criticism of the anti-globalization of “some countries.” He said last year that “burying one’s head in the sand like an ostrich in the face of economic globalization or trying to fight it with Don Quixote’s lance goes against the trend of history.” Obviously both sides showed a certain willingness to pursue friendly cooperation this year.
Both leaders’ speeches displayed concern over shared issues, including pandemic containment, economic recovery, climate change and rules and order. And yet they revealed dramatically divergent positions on these. There was increasing consensus between the two sides on the pandemic, as both conceded that this is a major crisis facing humanity, and the campaign against it concerns the future of humanity.
On the economy, the U.S. president emphasized such matters as new technologies, trade and networks, expressing its intention to make new rules in those fields. China’s leader paid greater attention to development, and for the first time put forward a “global development initiative.”
On climate change, Biden proposed an indiscriminate “one size fits all” approach; Xi approached it from the perspective of harmony between man and nature. On rules and order, both sides made multiple mention of the UN, but put UN values in different sequence. Biden highlighted the cooperative mechanisms of allies and partners, followed by the UN; Xi stressed that there is only one system, one order and one set of rules, reiterating the UN’s core leadership role in present-day order-building and rule-making.
The Chinese and U.S. leaders came up with different visions of international politics. The U.S. vision of an ideal world is one featuring “democracy, freedom [and] human rights” under American leadership. The Chinese vision was based on a “community with a shared future for humanity” featuring consultation, collaboration, sharing, peace, good-neighborliness and harmony.
It is hard to tell which is morally superior from a purely abstract perspective. Both sides understand the international political order from the perspective of their own national history, reflecting their respective sense of position and purpose. As is true of other nations, there are no absolute criteria for what is good or bad. Developed nations in the West on par with the U.S. may easily identify with the U.S. vision and emphasize the so-called Western rules and standards. Developing nations may find the Chinese vision, especially the global development initiative Xi proposed, more attractive.
In this sense, it was obviously untenable for Biden to repeatedly upbraid the so-called “authoritarian countries” in his speech, as if he were proceeding from a moral high ground in the capacity of the spokesman of democracy. The U.S. has lost its post-Cold War advantage of occupying the moral high ground. Or it may be more appropriate to say that such advantages have always been pie in the sky.
Transcending the Chinese and U.S. state perspectives and comparing their respective political visions in the scope of human history, one can see that the Chinese political vision is more consistent with the macro historical trend of international order in the long run. Past millennia of human history would have been impossible had there not been cooperation, despite all the wars and conflicts. Therefore, peace and cooperation, rather than war and conflict, represent the grand trend of history.
The history of human peace and cooperation has also seen the continuous expansion of the international order. Although forms of human political organizations — as well as hegemony and leadership in the international community — have been under constant evolution, the international order grown to cover an increasing proportion of humanity, with ever more diverse actors getting involved and more inclusiveness. The West has dominated the international order over the past few centuries. Since the beginning of the 20th century, however, the Orient and Oriental civilizations have been involved deeply in the historical process. The interaction and integration of the two civilizations will be the hallmark of the 21st century, and the international order of the future will thus be more inclusive.
The Chinese concept of international order, featuring consultation, collaboration and sharing, are more in line with the calls for peace and cooperation in the international order, while the U.S. ideas of democracy, freedom and human rights are strongly exclusive and aggressive.