Chinese President Xi Jinping wrapped up his 2015 visit to the United States with his first-ever address before the United Nations General Assembly on Monday. While his speech was heavy on the usual platitudes of win-win cooperation and mutual respect, Xi also announced a raft of new commitments to the United Nations and the developing world.
Xi’s speech contained three major announcements: a donation of $1 billion dollars over the next 10 years to create a peace and development fund with the United Nations; the establishment of a new standby peacekeeping force of 8,000 troops; and a pledge to provide military assistance worth $100 million to the African Union for peacekeeping missions over the next five years.
Those commitments came after Xi had already pledged $2 billion for an investment fund that will help the world’s least developed countries meet UN development goals, with far more to come: the goal is to invest $12 billion in the world’s poorest countries by 2030. Xi made that pledge on Saturday at the UN Sustainable Development Summit. Xi also said China would offer debt relief for the world’s “least developed countries, landlocked developing countries, and small island developing countries,” without naming any specific countries or the amount of debt to be absolved.
The commitments to provide new funds and more peacekeepers were a clear rebuttal to two oft-heard criticisms from the West. First, there’s the claim that China is not a responsible player on the world stage. This complaint came up during the joint press conference between Xi and President Barack Obama on Friday.
“[W]e can’t treat China as if it’s still a very poor, developing country, as it might have been 50 years ago. It is now a powerhouse. And that means it’s got responsibilities and expectations in terms of helping to uphold international rules that might not have existed before,” Obama said.
Over $3 billion worth of commitments to the UN and the developing world, plus the 8,000 troop peacekeeping force (and China is already by far the largest contributor of peacekeepers of the UN Security Council permanent members), is a major signal from Beijing that it is, in fact, already a responsible player on the world stage.
Second, Xi’s promises were designed to counter the argument that China seeks to tear down the current world order. Within the United States, in particular, there’s a great deal of suspicion that China is trying to overturn the U.S.-led international order by setting up its own alternatives (such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which caused consternation in Washington). Chinese officials have repeatedly countered that China supports and benefits from the international order, even while acknowledging there are certain changes Beijing would like to see made.
As Xi Jinping put it in a speech in Seattle on September 23:
As far as the existing international system is concerned, China has been a participant, builder, and contributor… A great number of countries, especially developing countries, want to see a more just and equitable international system. But it doesn’t mean that they want to unravel the entire system or start all over again. Rather, what they want is reform and to improve the system to keep up with the times.
Xi’s announcements are designed not only to demonstrate that China is a responsible player, but that it is (quite literally) invested in the current world order. As an added bonus, by working within the UN framework to make these commitments to the developing world, Beijing can also avoid the suspicions that often plague similar bilateral outreach (including accusations of neo-colonialism).
However, Xi made clear in his remarks that China will play a different sort of role in the UN than the United States and other developed countries have. China will be a leader and champion of the developing world, Xi said, promising that China will always cast its UN votes on the side of developing countries.
He called for a United Nations based on the principle that all countries are equal, and that strong countries should not bully the weak – the central tenet of Xi’s pet concept of a “new type of international relations,” which featured in his General Assembly address.
Xi had the misfortune to speak on the same day as both U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their dueling remarks, particularly on the Syrian civil war, sucked up most media attention in the West, but China’s new commitments should be not overlooked. Xi is trying to send a message, and it’s likely the developing world will hear it, even if the West doesn’t.