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National Review

China Prepares to Exploit an Opportunity at the U.N.

At the start of May, China assumed the presidency of the United Nations Security Council — an unexceptional responsibility, but one that comes at an extraordinary time. At this particular moment, the Chinese Communist Party’s bid to reshape the U.N. dovetails with its increasingly blunt assertions of power on the world stage. The Security Council presidency is a mostly ceremonial role, which mainly entails setting the council’s agenda and planning extraneous events. The presidency rotates every month among the permanent member states, each in alphabetical order; roughly every 15 months, each member presides over these sessions. So, in itself, China’s presidency this month means little. But Beijing will almost certainly use it as an opportunity to elevate its diplomatic priorities, as it always has, and to shamelessly push back against any politically inconvenient narratives. Thus it’s a useful point of reference for just how confident the Party feels about its ongoing campaign to co-opt the way we talk about the international order and thereby to reshape the very institutions and ideas that underpin it. Take its most recent Security Council presidency, in March 2020. Zhang Jun, China’s U.N. envoy, started the month with a roundtable event at which a Uyghur activist challenged him on the Chinese Communist Party’s mass-detention facilities. He replied, “your comment is full of bias,” and said that Xinjiang is “not an issue of human rights.” China’s diplomats then spent the rest of the month rebuffing U.S. efforts to take unified action at the U.N. to deal with the rapidly worsening COVID pandemic. (Accordingly, China never missed an opportunity to play up its own, overinflated efforts to deliver faulty medical equipment to countries facing a sharp rise in cases.) Expect more of the same brazen posturing in coming weeks. At a press conference on Monday to mark the start of China’s presidency, Zhang explained his country’s priorities for this month, which include focusing on multilateralism, the post-pandemic recovery in Africa, peacekeeping, and emerging technologies. Each of these topics alone plays a role in China’s political agenda. Although the Security Council’s relevance to emerging technologies is unclear, for instance, the discussion is sure to be imbued with Beijing’s self-interested priorities; talking about Africa’s post-COVID recovery is just an excuse to bring up its vaccine diplomacy. What makes presiding over the council so different this time, however, is that Beijing, more than at any point in recent history, is rejecting the assumptions that underpin the world order defended by the U.S. and its allies. It is doing so because it thinks years of crisis have permanently weakened our ability to resist the Party’s attempts to reshape international affairs. The Party-state has believed the West to be undergoing an inevitable decline since the 2008 financial crisis, a view that has been buttressed by the U.S. government’s handling of COVID. In a January 11 speech that was not reported on until this week, Xi said: “Judging from how this pandemic is being handled by different leaderships and political systems around the world, we can clearly see who has done better.” (To be sure, much has changed since then, as the American vaccination campaign has been massively successful, though there’s little indication that this has changed Beijing’s calculus.) Chinese officials who once discreetly held that view of the West’s decline, however, now say this in front of the cameras: “The United States isn’t qualified to speak to China from a position of strength,” said Yang Jiechi, the CCP’s top foreign-affairs official, during an outburst at the U.S.–China summit held in Anchorage in March. With the Party’s centennial and the 50th anniversary of its replacement of Taiwan at the U.N., officials are more than eager to prove that Beijing’s time to rise to the top of the international pecking order has come. Now, more than at any previous point, the Party-state appears to be confident in its ability to define the terms within which international organizations work, and to be taken seriously for it. Its emphasis on multilateralism, though an oft-beaten drum, takes on a newly significant meaning this month. “China has been always abiding by the policies and the principles of the U.N. Charter,” Zhang said at the press conference, winding up a meandering twelve-minute answer that stressed Beijing’s advancements in economic development, urged patience on its efforts to meet commitments on climate change, and peddled falsehoods about the Party’s human-rights record. “And China has been really builder of world peace, a contributor to global development and defender of international order.” The Party-state positions itself as a defender of multilateralism, international law, and the principles sketched out under the U.N. Charter, but this is no defense of the status quo. At various points over the past few years, Xi has garnered headlines for delivering this message, including at Party conferences, Davos, and, a few weeks ago, at the Bo’ao forum. “Global governance should reflect the evolving political and economic landscape,” said Xi at the forum, in an address extolling multilateralism and warning the U.S. and its allies against decoupling their economies from China’s. This call for change has only intensified recently. Yang again in Anchorage: “What China and the international community follow or uphold is the United Nations–centered international system and the international order underpinned by international law, not what is advocated by a small number of countries of the so-called ‘rules-based’ international order.” These subtle differences might seemingly matter only to international-relations scholars and those who follow the minutiae of the Party’s politics. They have, however, pronounced political ramifications. In a remarkable study of the Party’s view of the international order last year, Nadège Rolland, a former French defense official and China expert, explained how the Chinese leadership views the connection between material strength and its articulation of that order, a concept that she calls “discourse power.” Drawing this concept from her study of official and scholarly Chinese texts, she explains it thus: Words are not simply instruments of communication used to facilitate exchanges and discussions; they convey concepts, ideals, and values that are the foundational basis for the norms on which the international architecture is built and command how the world order is run: whoever rules the words rules the world. These distinctly Chinese efforts to refashion the concepts invoked by diplomats to describe international order are about more than cultivating sway in an abstract sense; discourse power is about transforming the ways in which international institutions discuss, and therefore take action on, issues. The goal, according to Rolland, is to “provide a soft pulp of peacefulness and benign intentions relentlessly applied on top of — though barely concealing — a hard core that is mostly about the party’s unhampered power and aura.” The Party’s power play at the U.N., malign at its core, has been only thinly disguised. It has also been massively successful. When her report was published in 2019, Rolland already counted five resolutions with the Party’s preferred diplomatic newspeak adopted across the Economic and Social Council, the Security Council, the General Assembly, and the Human Rights Council over the previous two years. Meanwhile, Beijing has put these concepts into action through the co-optation of the U.N.’s specialized agencies and mechanisms. This is where backroom dealing over legislative language meets political power and influence cultivated over decades. China has placed well over 250 junior professional officers (JPOs), essentially young staffers, in the U.N. system and provides funding for them; the U.S. has funded considerably fewer posts for its own citizens at the U.N. China has also fought to install officials in top leadership posts, and four Chinese nationals currently run U.N. agencies. Throughout the organization’s secretariat, Chinese nationals occupy several high-level posts, including the assistant secretary-general for the U.N. Development Programme, which is held by Xu Haoliang, a former JPO. And as Western countries fell asleep at the switch, China’s allies in the U.N. system worked to inscribe the Belt and Road Initiative into the U.N.’s sustainability agenda. One overarching strand of this discourse-power push elevates the “right to development.” This concept excludes, notably, “individuals and civil society actors as rights holders and participants in the defense and promotion of human rights,” according to Andréa Worden, a human-rights lawyer and expert on the topic. This is why Zhang, during his press conference at the start of this week, described Beijing as a protector of human rights, and it’s why that lie has been somewhat effective. Zhang’s claim possesses a semblance of truth, if by “human rights” one is referring to the reduction of extreme poverty in China over the past several decades: “We know that some, some friends that have different views, but as a Chinese I have I witnessed that remarkable progress we have made in protecting and the promotion of human rights, especially the promotion and protection of human rights of vulnerable groups, of women.” Such a statement is obviously false, if one understands “human rights” to mean the ability of individuals to live free of violence perpetrated by the state, such as arbitrary detention, torture, and genocide. That Chinese diplomats at the U.N. and other fora position Beijing as a champion of multilateralism and human rights is, if not necessarily a lie, a farce. Zhang and his colleagues are achieving something more dangerous, by willing into existence a framework in which mass atrocities can be overlooked in favor of focusing on economic development. And so China does lean on its form of multilateralism, one which suits the Party’s interests. The human-rights abuses perpetrated by the Party-state are so offensive as to be capable of galvanizing an international response that could diminish China’s international ambitions and even threaten the Party’s survival. As the U.S. has moved to confront Beijing over its malign behavior, including through the Biden administration’s implementation of a sanctions campaign coordinated with U.S. allies, China has corralled a remarkable level of international support for its position. At the U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva two months ago, Cuba presented a letter signed by 64 countries (including China) calling on other countries to “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs by manipulating Xinjiang-related issues, [and] refrain from making unfounded allegations against China out of political motivations.” The message echoed several previous such letters that have been issued over the past couple of years, including one in October with 45 signatories. In July, 53 countries supported China’s Hong Kong crackdown. According to Beijing, multilateralism is that which advances its standing abroad, and therefore helps to ensure the survival of the Communist regime at home. “The first priority will be firmly upholding and practicing multilateralism, to support the United Nations in playing a central role,” said Zhang on Monday, of China’s Security Council presidency. He announced a high-level meeting to be held tomorrow, “with the theme of maintenance of peace and security, upholding multilateralism and the U.N.-centered international system,” chaired by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi. Invitations, he said, had been extended to foreign ministers, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who will be returning from a visit to Ukraine following his attendance at a G7 meeting in London. Zhang thinks Blinken might attend and said to the press, “I hope your coverage will not make him to rethink about that.” (A State Department spokesperson didn’t rule out Blinken’s attendance at the meeting, only telling National Review, “I don’t have anything to announce at this time.”) It would, of course, be a mistake for the U.S. to send such a high-level official to play along with a Chinese-convened meeting on multilateralism. During the previous administration, observers interpreted China’s paeans to the international system as a direct consequence of President Trump’s actions eschewing certain international agreements. But Chinese efforts to influence the U.N., its agencies, and other similar bodies far transcends the political skirmishes of the Trump years. Failing to distinguish between China’s discourse-power campaign and a U.S. approach that prizes coalition-building toward advancing U.S. aims is a luxury that has long since been squandered. With this in mind, the U.S. should instead send a lower-ranking official to explain Washington’s efforts to drive multilateral action as a counter to Beijing’s mass atrocities and malign influence. U.S. diplomats must take every opportunity this month to reveal to the world how Beijing is seeking to remove obstacles to wider acceptance of its depravity. Failing that, this otherwise inconsequential Security Council presidency will help the Party continue to warp the words, concepts, and institutions that would stand in its way.



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