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Foreign Policy

United Nations as Battlefield

Nov 03, 2021
  • Zhao Minghao

    Professor, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University

In America’s script for strategic competition with China, the United Nations plays a key role. In a departure from the Trump administration, President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party elite place greater emphasis on understanding the challenges posed by China in the context of the international system, in particular the U.S.-China rivalry in affairs related to the UN. Some U.S. experts suggest that Beijing is stepping up its efforts to shape a “UN with Chinese characteristics.”  Hence, the UN is becoming one of the main battlegrounds for the U.S. against China, a phenomenon that threatens to further destabilize the international system.

The UN was created in 1945 after two major scourges of war in the first half of the 20th century. China was the first country to sign the United Nations Charter in 1945 as a founding member. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the country was excluded from the UN system for a long time. In October 1971, the People’s Republic of China resumed its legal seat at the United Nations, and it embarked on a journey to reintegrate into the international system.

  Oct. 25 this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping attended a conference marking the 50th anniversary of this historic event via video-link in Beijing and delivered a speech. He said that the past five decades since China restored its lawful seat at the United Nations have witnessed China’s peaceful development and its commitment and dedication to the welfare of all humanity. Xi stressed that all countries in the world should resolutely uphold the authority and sanctity of the United Nations, uphold the international system with the UN at its core and jointly practice “true multilateralism.” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also delivered a message at the conference, saying that China has made increasingly important contributions to the United Nations over the past five decades and has been a reliable partner and a mainstay of international cooperation.

Over the past 50 years, China’s participation in and support for the institution has deepened. China has conscientiously fulfilled its obligations to contribute money to the organization, and its share of the UN regular budget has risen above 12 percent. When he attended a series of summits on the 70th anniversary of the UN in September 2015 Xi announced the establishment of a $1 billion China-UN Peace and Development Fund with a term of 10 years to promote multilateral cooperation. To date, the fund has launched 112 collaborative projects benefiting more than 100 countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Oceania. China has announced that the fund will be extended for another five years upon its expiration in 2025.

In addition, China is now the second-largest contributor to UN peacekeeping operations and the largest troop contributor of the five permanent members of the Security Council. China has so far taken part in 29 UN peacekeeping missions and dispatched a cumulative total of more than 50,000 personnel. There are more than 2,400 Chinese peacekeeping personnel on missions around the world. Twenty-four military members and police officers lost their lives while on peacekeeping missions. In September 2015, China announced that it had joined the UN Peacekeeping Capability Readiness System and had taken the lead in establishing an 8,000-strong Chinese standby military force and a 300-strong standing police force to serve the cause of maintaining world peace.

The promotion of human rights is an integral part of the UN’s work, and China is playing an increasingly prominent role in this field. It has been elected to the UN Human Rights Council five times since the council’s establishment in 2006. China has ratified or acceded to 26 international human rights instruments. In recent years, China and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have twice signed memoranda of understanding on technical cooperation, covering areas such as judicial reform, police and human rights, human rights education and implementation of human rights treaties. In addition, China is a key proponent of the Declaration on the Right to Development and is committed to promoting the establishment of a mechanism for enforcing that right, which is an important contribution to the UN human rights cause.

China has achieved rapid development over the past 50 years. It achieved, 10 years ahead of schedule, its poverty reduction target under the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, accounting for more than 70 percent of global poverty reduction. Developing countries account for the vast majority of the 193 UN member states, and China has vigorously promoted South-South cooperation among developing countries in an effort to bridge what’s been called the development divide. China has provided nearly 400 billion yuan in development assistance to 166 countries and international organizations, implemented nearly 3,000 aid packages in developing countries and dispatched more than 600,000 aid workers, thus providing strong support to more than 120 developing countries in implementing the UN Millennium Development Goals.

The COVID-19 pandemic has plunged many developing countries into great difficulty. The achievements in global poverty reduction over the past decade are now at risk of being overtaken, with the number of people in hunger worldwide having risen to around 800 million. With this in mind, China has proposed the Global Development Initiative, which calls on the international community to place development issues at the forefront of global macro policy, give full play to the coordinating role of the United Nations and accelerate the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. China has established the China International Poverty Reduction Center with the United Nations Development Programme to provide training to workers from nearly 140 countries and organizations to help advance the global poverty reduction process.

 How to address climate change and improve global environmental governance is one of the most significant challenges facing human societies in the 21st century. China was among the first to become a party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and worked vigorously with the United States, France and other Western countries to conclude the Paris agreement. China made a solemn commitment that its carbon emissions would peak by 2030 and that it would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

In December, the United Nations convened the Climate Ambition Summit, at which President Xi proposed a series of new initiatives for the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, including a stipulation that non-fossil energy would  account for about 25 percent of China’s primary energy consumption by 2030, that China’s forest stock would increase by 6 billion cubic meters from the 2005 level and that the total installed capacity of wind and solar power would reach more than 1.2 billion kilowatts. In September, Xi announced in a speech at the General Debate of the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly that China strongly supports green and low-carbon energy in developing countries and will not build any new coal power projects outside China.

There is no doubt that China has made concrete contributions to the UN. But in the view of some Americans, China wants to launch an influence campaign at the UN to reshape the organization with Chinese ideas and policies at the expense of U.S. leadership. In response, the U.S. government has undertaken a series of actions to weaken China’s role at the UN, including a proposal to block the inclusion of terms like “community of shared future” and even “win-win cooperation” in UN documents. The U.S. also opposed Chinese professionals taking on leadership positions in UN-related agencies and restricted Chinese people from serving as UN officials and employees. 

The U.S. is doing great damage by turning the UN into a battlefield for great power competition. UN Secretary-General Guterres warned that U.S.-China relations are on the verge of spiraling out of control, adding that “multilateralism is under attack when it is most needed.” In fact, a series of unilateralist policies and “exit diplomacy” moves under the Trump administration in recent year has eroded U.S. credibility at the UN. Although the Biden administration claims to have returned to multilateralism, many of the U.S. practices amount to selective multilateralism. They will only render the purposes and principles of the UN Charter hollow and trigger bloc confrontation akin to the Cold War.

President Xi stressed that international rules can only be made by the 193 UN member states together, and not decided by individual countries or blocs of countries. Without exception, international rules should be observed by the 193 UN member states. Obviously, this is a resounding response to the rules-based international order preached by the United States.

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