This year marks the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the United Nations. In the face of rising unilateralism, particularly from the US, and amid increasingly complex and severe global challenges, how might humanity protect the authority of the organization? And what role can China play to confront US hegemony? Global Times (GT) reporters Li Qingqing and Yu Jincui talked to Zhang Dan (Zhang), vice president and director-general of the UN Association of China, about these issues.
GT: China is one of the founding members of the UN, and was the first country to sign the UN Charter. As the biggest developing country and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, what is China’s role in the UN? How has China contributed to maintaining multilateralism and international order?
Zhang: In 1971, after the UN General Assembly Resolution 2758 was passed, the People’s Republic of China’s legitimate seat in the UN was restored. Since then, China has become an active participant in multilateral affairs, contributing to peace and security, development and the protection of human rights.
China’s contribution is multifaceted, from ideas to concrete actions. On peace and security, in terms of ideas, China supports the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, including sovereign equality, noninterference in other countries’ domestic affairs, and refraining from the use of force against other countries. China also advocates equality and win-win cooperation and supports developing countries to choose their own development path. China advocates that different countries with different backgrounds live in peace. These ideas are very important to international relations, and China is a strong advocate of the UN Charter.
In terms of actions, China supports political settlements and using peaceful means for conflicts, and advocates collective security — not only security for certain countries, but for all countries. In Middle East affairs, the Iran nuclear issue and the Korean Peninsula, China has played very constructive roles.
China has also sent more than 40,000 peacekeepers to more than 30 peacekeeping operations around the world over the past 30 years. China not only contributes ideas, but also takes concrete actions for global peace and security. Regarding development, China is the biggest contributor to development and a very active member in pushing forward the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). China has taken the lead and set a good example for other countries to include SDGs into their national plans.
Because China is the largest developing country, it is also contributing a lot to South-South cooperation which emphasizes equality and mutual benefits. Even when China was poor, it had tried to offer assistance to other developing countries. Now, with China’s own growth, it is contributing more to the global public good and all other developing countries are benefiting from this.
The China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is another channel for South-South cooperation. It contributes to poverty reduction and generates employment in other developing countries. According to a World Bank report, BRI transport projects, if completed, could lift 7.6 million people out from extreme poverty and 32 million people from moderate poverty. World trade could grow from between 1.7 percent and 6.2 percent. Many UN agencies have also joined efforts with China using the BRI as a channel to promote South-South cooperation.
In terms of human rights, China emphasizes gender equality as one of its priority areas. In 1995, China successfully hosted the 4th World Conference on Women. Since then, China has shown its leadership with women’s empowerment. COVID-19 has once again testified to China’s people-centered measures to protect and promote human rights for all. China emphasizes people’s right to life. This is a very important and fundamental right. Without right to life, people cannot have the luxury to talk about other human rights. China’s acts are significant compared with those of certain developed countries, which have been making empty talks about human rights all the time. They use human rights as pretexts to demonize developing countries. Human rights have been their political tool. Their actions have shown the world that they do not care about people’s lives. They even try to make China the scapegoat for the failures of their domestic and foreign policies. There is a sharp contrast between what China has done and what certain developed countries have claimed to be their record.
GT: On September 11, 2020, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a resolution to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic by a vote of 169-2. Only the US and Israel voted objections. What is your opinion on the US role in the UN today?
Zhang: The result once again shows the determination of the international community to unite and cooperate in the fight against COVID-19. But the US again shows its unilateral position, which is opposed by almost all the other countries. The US is actually isolating itself, because its unilateralism contradicts the will of all the other countries and violates international laws. The US’ unilateral coercive measures and sanctions against other countries negatively affect other countries’ access to the international system, to trade and supplies, and to the improvement of public health. However, the US position is being objected to by most countries.
The US unilateral position can further be demonstrated by many other statements it has made about COVID-19. The US policy is consistent in terms of making the WHO and other countries its scapegoats for its own policy failures. It has objected to global cooperation to contain the virus. On the other hand, it has tried to launch a smear propaganda campaign against China. This has once again revealed the hypocrisy of the US government in combating COVID-19. But I’m still very happy that all the 169 countries voted against the US unilateral actions. This shows the international community’s determination to work together to combat the pandemic.
GT: In January, the US denied a visa to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, barring him from a UN meeting. In 2019, the US also refused to issue visas to members of a Russian delegation traveling to the UN General Assembly. Do you think the UN will move out of the US in the future? By staying in the US, will the UN’s normal functions be affected?
Zhang: By denying visas to Iranian foreign minister and Russian delegates, the US was actually violating host country agreement signed with the UN and its obligations under international law. The US has the responsibility to ensure these officials’ unimpeded access to the UN plaza. This is another example of US obstructing the function of the UN and participation rights of member states. This is not the first time that the US has blocked country representatives from coming to New York and participating in UN meetings. The US is breaking its obligations.
Will the UN move out of the US? You know the UN has three headquarters, the other two are in Geneva and Vienna. Though I heard a lot of complaints by New Yorkers about so many motorcades during the summit meeting of General Assembly, I don’t think the US would allow the UN to leave because of so many benefits: A lot of UN meetings and sideline events are held in New York, and the US is making itself the center of global governance. Also, because there are many people coming and leaving New York for UN meetings, a lot of revenue has been generated. By attracting so many people, it actually makes New York a global tourist center and a convention center. So, I do not think the US will allow the UN to leave New York, although the US owes the UN a lot of money.
The beauty of multilateralism lies in its high representation. Every UN member should be equal. By blocking access of certain members such as Russia and Iran, the US is actually depriving their rights to voice their opinions. These countries cannot join the deliberation, adopt a resolution, or approve an agenda. They cannot exercise their rights because they cannot even come to New York.
The US’ coercive measures are not only counterproductive, but also have hindered the UN’s proper function, which is quite important to global peace and security. The US constantly abuses its status as the host of the UN and this is not acceptable to others. It once again signals the unscrupulous actions of the US and its open distain for international law.
I can predict that this will happen again in the future. The US will use technical reasons to prevent certain diplomats from coming to New York. This is not acceptable.
GT: As the US unilateralism and protectionism are on the rise, will China play a bigger role in the UN? How will China’s role in the UN help confront US hegemony?
Zhang: China has been a supporter, constructor, advocate and contributor of multilateralism with the UN as its core. China’s role in the UN has been on the rise, in keeping with its increasing importance in global governance and its accelerating contributions to global public good. China is a member of virtually all the important international organizations: UN, WTO, G20, APEC, SCO, and so on. It always plays its due part in these international bodies, representing the various interests of developing countries.
An overwhelming majority of countries are in support of multilateralism, because it is in the interests of all countries. As a developing country, China also advocates equality for all countries. The concept of “building a community of shared future for mankind” proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping is welcomed by many countries around the world, because it is China’s interpretation of multilateralism and is in the interest of all countries. China is expected to play a bigger role, because as the largest developing country, and a country emerging from a 100-year cycle of humiliation by foreign occupation, China has a bigger stake in maintaining collective peace and security for all countries. It seeks to achieve sustainable development for the developing countries.
But there are always tensions between unilateralism and multilateralism, clashes between hegemony and dominance vs independence and autonomy. These problems are always there. Developing countries are always fighting for their independence, autonomy and their own voices. They do not want to be maneuvered or dominated by certain developed countries. The international community needs to be united to oppose unilateralism, hegemony and big power domination so as to safeguard the interests of all countries, big or small. China will certainly play its part and continue to uphold justice and fairness based on the concept of community with shared futures.
GT: Development is one of the biggest challenges in the world. In the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the UN General Assembly, there are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), showing the ambition of the global agenda. However, some countries try to use the definition on developing countries to create obstacles for their development. What is your view on this issue?
Zhang: SDGs are global agendas for development. They cover both developing and developed countries, emphasizing the idea of leaving no one behind. These are very broad and overarching goals for all the countries. I think there is no unified definition of developing countries, and different organizations have their different understandings. For example, the World Bank uses high-income, middle-income and low-income countries to differentiate development levels. But in the UN, there is no clear definition. Developing countries or developed countries are not only an economic term, but also a political one. In the UN, the biggest group of developing countries is the G77+ China. This organization has more than 130 members.
Many countries identify themselves as developing countries. For example, Singapore. Although per capita GDP of Singapore is very high, it is still a member of G77+China. And although some other countries have surpassed the World Bank’s threshold for developed countries, they do not regard themselves as developed countries.
In terms of China, although China’s per capita GDP is growing, this cannot deny China’s status as a developing country, because China has always aligned itself with the positions of developing countries and has tried to safeguard the interests of developing countries. China is also, clearly, a member of G77+ China.
On the other hand, there is a tendency by developed countries to blur the differences between developed and developing countries. Because in terms of development and North-South cooperation, developed countries have the responsibility to provide official development assistance (ODA) to developing countries. This is their obligation. Developed countries want to avert their responsibility, so they try to blur the differences. This has become quite obvious in recent years. The WTO also has some preferential policies for developing countries, but some developed countries try to deprive developing countries of these special treatments.
In terms of climate change, because of historical responsibility, developed countries also have the obligation to provide new, additional and public resources and technology to developing countries in accordance with the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities.
But unfortunately, these obligations are not met. The reason is quite clear: Developed countries do not want to honor their obligations. This will negatively affect developing countries’ capability to trade and use clean energy, and stop them from improving people’s lives. In Africa, many people have no access to electricity.
We need to have a balanced approach. We emphasize environmentally friendly approaches on the one hand, and on the other hand, we need to have development. Without development, a lot of problems cannot be solved and people’s living standards cannot be improved. Developing countries should not sacrifice their goals for development just for the sake of environmental concerns. Sustainability should be the keyword in development and combating climate change.
GT: The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered changes in world affairs. It has also strengthened people’s focus on non-traditional security threats. In the post-pandemic era, what kind of a UN does the world need? How will the UN further reform to face the new changes?
Zhang: The UN is the center of global governance. We have to recognize that the UN is changing all the time. When we talk about UN reforms, we should first take the composition of UN membership into consideration – developing countries are the overwhelming majority. We need to respond to their needs and give them equal voices. But apparently, developing countries’ voices are overlooked under many circumstances. So, we need to consider the changing dynamic of UN membership.
Second, the role of the UN General Assembly should be strengthened in terms of peace and security and other areas. The UN should also give equal voices to all countries. Certain countries try to use the UN to impose their own coercive measures against other countries. This must be objected. We need the UN to serve the interests of all countries, not only certain big developed countries. This should be the fundamental principle underlying UN reform – to ensure equality, equal voices and mutual respect.
The UN reform should also reflect fairness. It should be reached based on consensus, and reform plans should be supported by all member states.
The UN, after decades, needs to improve its efficiency and responsibility to global challenges. After COVID-19, we can see the UN responded very quickly through the WHO, but the warnings were quite often ignored by some member states. This is not beneficial to handling global challenges. The UN must quickly unite all the nations to face the public health emergency.
Last, I think the UN needs to use and mobilize resources more effectively. The UN has a big peacekeeping budget. The money has to be used wisely. I still believe there is a lot of waste in terms of peacekeeping operations. I believe UN officials should be held accountable for improving efficiencies. There are lots of talks about UN reform, but not many proposals are delivered. I do not think too many new bodies and new bureaucracies need to be created. The money should be used more on people on the ground. Many special UN representatives spend a lot of money on traveling and booking hotels, but I don’t see how many people on the ground are benefiting from that. There are many complaints. The money is spent on these officials, not on people on the ground. The money should be used on really improving ordinary people’s lives, education and public health.