This week should have been a festive occasion for the United Nations, with global leaders descending on New York City to celebrate the body’s 75th annual General Assembly. Instead, the meetings were held virtually, as the COVID-19 pandemic has closed borders and restricted travel around the world. Meanwhile, the United Nations finds itself in the crosshairs of the U.S.-China rivalry, with Washington accusing the global body of favoring Beijing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, by contrast, has taken upon himself the mantle of champion for the current multilateral order – albeit a reformed one that gives greater voice to the developing world (including, coincidentally, China). In his remarks, delivered via video on September 22, he painted China as a responsible player in both the United Nations and the world order writ large.
“Seventy-five years ago, China made historic contributions to winning the World Anti-Fascist War and supported the founding of the United Nations. Today, with the same sense of responsibility, China is actively involved in the international fight against COVID-19, contributing its share to upholding global public health security,” Xi said. He added that “any attempt of politicizing the [COVID-19] issue or stigmatization must be rejected” – implicit pushback to the United States’ tactic of blaming the pandemic squarely on China, where the disease was first discovered.
Xi offered China’s guidance and assistance in the global fight against COVID-19, with special attention paid to “developing countries, especially African countries.” That’s in keeping with China’s self-image as a champion of the Global South and special friend to Africa. Xi pledged that as Chinese-developed vaccines become available, “they will be provided to other developing countries on a priority basis.”
It’s clear that Xi senses an opportunity in the COVID-19 crisis – and the chaotic U.S. response – to strength China’s role as a global leader. He used his speech to promote his slogan of a “community with a shared future” (sometimes translated as a “community of common destiny”), which has always carried a tacit rebuke of the U.S. alliance system. Xi made that rebuke a tad more explicit, saying the world “should reject attempts to build blocs to keep others out and oppose a zero-sum approach.” He also reiterated the common formula that China “will never seek hegemony, expansion, or sphere of influence” with the telling addition: “We have no intention to fight either a Cold War or a hot war with any country.”
Aside from the focus on COVID-19, Xi addressed three other main areas in his speech: globalization, climate change, and global governance reform. Each is a priority in and of itself for China, but also an area where Beijing sees the opportunity to take up a leadership role amid the Trump administration’s unwillingness to commit to multilateralism.
Xi declared, “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.” It’s hard not to read that line as a direct rebuke of the Trump administration’s efforts at economic decoupling. But just in case anyone missed the point, he added, “Let this be clear: The world will never return to isolation, and no one can sever the ties between countries.”
Xi also offered a renewed commitment to fighting climate change, saying that “COVID-19 reminds us that humankind should launch a green revolution.” This is an area where the United States has purposefully stepped back from global efforts by withdrawing from the Paris climate change agreement. In stark contrast, Xi took a major step forward Tuesday: For the first time he announced a goal for China to reach carbon neutrality in 2060. While China agreed to aim for an emissions peak in 2030 in the Paris agreement, in the past Beijing had been reluctant to commit to actual emissions cuts.
Finally, Xi advocated reform of the 75-year-old U.N. system while maintaining the baseline of “stay[ing] true to multilateralism and safeguard[ing] the international system with the U.N. at its core.” For decades, U.S. policymakers had been calling on China to act like a “responsible stakeholder” and contribute more to the international system. In a remarkable reversal, now it is China’s president admonishing that “major countries should act like major countries. They should provide more global public goods, take up their due responsibilities and live up to people’s expectations.” While Xi named no names, a critique of the Trump administration’s “America First” approach was clear.
Adding to the direct comparison, Xi’s speech followed almost immediately after an address by U.S. President Donald Trump, which The Guardian’s Julian Borger described as “a ferocious attack on China.” Trump opened his speech with a broadside: “We must hold accountable the nation that unleashed this plague upon the world: China.” Trump also called COVID-19 “the China virus,” a term widely criticized for inflaming racist sentiments against not only ethnic Chinese but other East Asians. (Before introducing Xi, China’s U.N. ambassador said that “China resolutely rejects the baseless accusations.”)
Overall, Trump’s speech sounded more like part of a campaign rally, proudly touting his personal achievements as president and fiercely defending his controversial moves (such as withdrawing the United States from the Paris agreement). Noticeably absent, however, was any vision for the U.N. going forward or reflections on the body’s past 75 years. Instead, Trump seemed to disparage the very idea of international cooperation when he spoke of “the same failed solutions, pursuing global ambitions at the expense of their own people.”
“I am proudly putting America first, just as you should be putting your countries first. That’s okay. That’s what you should be doing,” Trump said toward the end of his speech.
Compare that to Xi’s closing lines: “Let us join hands to uphold the values of peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom shared by all of us and build a new type of international relations and a community with a shared future for mankind. Together, we can make the world a better place for everyone.”