India and the US have more to look out for than monitoring Chinese ships in the Indian Ocean. China has begun asserting its weight as a global leader in solving the world’s problems — a space that will presumably be left partially vacant after US President-elect Donald Trump assumes office given Trump’s distaste for global trade, the UN and the traditional western pre-occupations like exporting democracy.
Like in Davos, Chinese President Xi Jinping struck the right notes talking a language that has mostly been the domain of American presidents— from global cooperation on trade, global terrorism, climate change, nuclear disarmament and the need for dialogue. However, there were differences from what a traditional American statement may have sounded. Xi stressed on the necessity of respecting the sovereignty of countries and not letting a single country dominate international discussions, thus, representing the non-western, including African voices.
“Sovereign equality is the most important norm governing state-to-state relations over the past centuries. The essence of sovereign equality is that the sovereignty and dignity of all countries, whether big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, must be respected, their internal affairs allow no interference and they have the right to independently choose their social system and development path,” Xi Jinping told an invited audience at the United Nations in Geneva on Wednesday.
The statement, of course, ignores China’s apparent lack of sensitivity towards Indian concern of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passing through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir — a point that was re-emphasised by Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar in the second Raisina Dialogue.
“We should advance democracy in international relations and reject dominance by just one or several countries,” Xi added.
Calling out to major powers to “respect each other’s core interests and major concerns”, Xi asked for “new frontiers” of cooperation in “the deep sea, the polar regions, the outer space and the Internet”.
Taking a dig at Trump’s stand, the Chinese president said, “Trade protectionism and self-isolation will benefit no one”, portraying himself as the last big bastion of globalisation when much of Europe and the US are buckling under anti-globalist trends.
“The trend towards multi-polarity and economic globalisation is surging,” Xi said.
Referring to the Paris Agreement as a “milestone in the history of climate governance” Xi urged nations to ensure that “this endeavour is not derailed”.
In an attempt to walk the talk and appear serious towards its goal, China has cancelled 103 coal plants in view of smog and wasted capacity.
China announced last year to contribute a whopping $3.1 billion to the Green Climate Fund to help poorer countries make a transition to a green economy.
The new UN Secretary-General (UNSG) António Guterres described China in the high-level event as “a key player in creating the conditions for the Paris Agreement to be signed” and as being “very strongly linked to the two biggest success stories of international diplomacy in the last decades”.
Loosening the purse strings
Well-meaning platitudes aside, China is also further loosening its purse strings. It is already one of the biggest funder of the UN. The Chinese president at the event announced his decision to provide an additional 200 million yuan of humanitarian assistance for the refugees and the displaced of Syria.
“As terrorism and refugee crises are closely linked to geopolitical conflicts, resolving conflicts provides the fundamental solution to such problems,” Xi said.
China played a role as part of the UN P5 group in clinching the important Iran nuclear deal and has emphasised in recent times that it would continue working for its effective implementation. It also plays an important role in negotiating a political settlement to the ongoing Syria crisis, as part of the International Syria Support Group. These trends show its increasing confidence in getting mired in global conflicts.
In the coming five years, China will import $ 8 trillion of goods, attract $ 600 billion of foreign investment, make $ 750 billion of outbound investment, and Chinese tourists will make 700 million outbound visits.
“All this will bring more development opportunities to other countries,” Xi added.
It is also substantially increasing its peacekeeping contributions.
Between 1950 and 2016, China provided foreign countries with over 400 billion yuan of aid and promised to increase assistance to others “as ability permits”.
“We will make funds available to peace and development oriented programmes proposed by the UN and its agencies in Geneva on a priority basis,” he said referring to the China-UN Peace and Development Fund that has recently been officially inaugurated.
It also promised to support public health in African countries and other developing countries, a “new model of major country relations” with the US, “a comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination” with Russia, partnership with Europe and “a partnership of unity and cooperation” with BRICS countries.
‘China will never seek expansion'
“No matter how strong its economy grows, China will never seek hegemony, expansion or sphere of influence,” Xi told the elite audience.
The statement belies the experience of smaller neighbours to the communist regime who have accused the state of having expansionist ambitions.
Interestingly, last year, China had rejected a ruling against it and in favour of Philippines by an international tribunal in The Hague over the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
The UN body, among other findings, had said that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone by constructing artificial islands, interfering in its petroleum exploration and fishing activities and failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from venturing into the zone.
The Chinese president also spoke of the One Belt One Road project (OBOR) again.
“Over 100 countries and international organisations have supported the initiative, and a large number of early harvest projects have been launched,” Xi said.
The UNSG in his speech called the OBOR a “very important initiative…aiming at building infrastructure to support global development and global trade around the world”.
The OBOR initiative, again, is a matter of concern for India as it has termed it a ‘unilateral’ or a ‘national’ initiative of China.
“In our choices and through our actions, we have sought to overcome barriers to our outreach to the West and Central Asia, and eastwards to [the] Asia-Pacific,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said in the Raisina Dialogue 2017.
“However, equally, connectivity in itself cannot override or undermine the sovereignty of other nations,” he added without explicitly referring to China.
The UN in Geneva hosting an invitation-only event is itself a rare gesture.
Human Rights Watch calls it “an utterly unprecedented move” in the way in which the UN imposed restrictions on its staff that included requesting them to leave the UN building, and barring accredited civil society representatives from entering. Junior UN staff, reportedly, were made to escort the 200-member strong Chinese delegation with Xi Jinping and the 800 people as audience. All the gates of Palais des Nations were shut except one and diplomats and others complained of long winding security checks.
“It is unfortunate that the Chinese president was given an obsequious red carpet treatment at the UN while NGOs with concerns about his dismal rights record were kept out. We would hope that UN Secretary General Guterres, who in his opening remarks made no mention of human rights, will in his new post prioritise persuading China to halt its relentless trampling on rights such as freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly,” Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said in a press statement.
Police stopped a few Tibetan activists from unfurling the Tibetan flag.
The WHO sent a letter to all its staff that read: “To minimise the impact of this visit [of the Chinese president] on staff, staff who can do so are encouraged to work from home on Wednesday (18 January), in particular during the afternoon, with the permission of their supervisors”.
Many of the staff, numbering about 3,000, working in the UN premises were encouraged to leave the UN premises early.
The high-level event was attended by almost all the top UN officials, except the High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein (who was in Davos) with the UNSG, the Director-General of the UN office at Geneva Michael Moller and the UN General Assembly president Peter Thomson on the dais.
“This commitment of China to multilateralism is today more necessary than ever,” Guterres said in the opening address.
The UN is much nervous — after Trump dismissed the UN as "a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time " and threatened that things will be different after 20 January (Trump's inauguration as President) — and sees China as the only country capable of giving some fillip to the cash-strapped multilateral organisation.
If China continues playing the spoiler for India on some key issues at the UN, then Chinese overtures to the UN, including increased financial contribution and the UN’s reciprocity, may be a matter of concern for India.
Updated Date: Jan 19, 2017 22:12 PM