China’s President Xi Jinping Zoomed into the U.N. General Assembly last year crowing about how his country had beaten Covid, opposed foreign military interventions and led the way in advancing democracy and rule of law.
Since then, China has taken Russia’s side in the Ukraine war. It’s menaced the democratic island of Taiwan and stamped out the vestiges of free rule in Hong Kong. And its vaunted economy has sputtered due to its draconian zero-Covid strategy.
No wonder democracies aren’t so thrilled about Beijing mucking about the global order.
To make matters worse, this year Xi’s Zoom invite has been revoked — leaders are required to attend in person.
Instead, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will address the General Assembly — though now relegated to a weekend time slot — to project an image of his boss as a resolute global statesman with innovative solutions to the world’s most intractable problems.
Expect Wang to lace his speech with the usual bromides about “win-win cooperation,” “inclusive growth” and a “people-centered approach” designed to portray Xi as a staunch defender of the U.N. system.
But that verbal smokescreen aims to mitigate international dismay about China’s alignment with Russia’s Ukraine invasion, its abuses of Xinjiang Uyghurs and its aggressive military intimidation of Taiwan.
It’s not likely to win many friends.
Instead, Wang’s speech will be as much for an audience back home in China as it will be for the diplomats and heads of state gathered in Turtle Bay — an airbrushed portrayal of Xi’s international diplomacy in the run-up to next month’s 20th Party Congress where he’ll extend his rule for another five years, at least.
Wang will hammer home those messages by offering Xi’s Beijing-led alternatives — including the Global Security Initiative and Global Development Initiative — to what officials argue is a U.S.-dominated international system wracked by instability. Xi’s objective is to build support among countries in the global south for a narrative that positions China as the logical successor to a U.S.-led multilateralism that Beijing insists is failing to keep the peace.
Look for Wang to dole out some honey to the developing world while he sprays vinegar on what he referred to last month as U.S. “unilateralism and bullying.”
“China detects a vulnerability in the U.S.-led Western countries’ role in international security and thinks that the Ukraine war has made Western countries’ role in international stability appear more negative,” said Tong Zhao, senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and visiting research scholar at Princeton University. “China is trying, including through the GSI, to gain more support, especially among the global south countries.”
Russia’s war against Ukraine and its ripple effects — risks of clashes between NATO and Russian forces and global food supply chain disruptions — gives Wang an opportunity to tout Xi’s initiatives that he says can avoid such conflicts.
“China is trying to use Ukraine to make its case that global security governance is broken [and] that the American alliance system is part of the problem and needs to be replaced or rethought,” said Sheena Chestnut Greitens, director of the Asia Policy Program at the University of Texas at Austin.
Expect Wang’s UNGA speech to elaborate on Xi’s Global Security Initiative unveiled with scant detail at the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference in April. Xi’s 202-word description of the GSI leaned heavily on Chinese Foreign Ministry boilerplate, including rejection of “Cold War mentality” and opposition to “unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction.” But Chinese foreign policy experts say that’s about to change.
“I think the Chinese are paving the ground for the [GSI and GDI] to be Xi Jinping’s foreign policy key words for his next two years,” said Yun Sun, China program director at the Stimson Center. “It’s not China saying, ‘Hey, I’m trying to replace the U.N.’ China’s saying, ‘I am the U.N.’”
Chinese state media has even coined the term “Xiplomacy” as part of an ongoing propaganda push to portray Xi as a devotee of the U.N. system. “President Xi has reiterated China’s support for the UN-centered international system and pledged greater contributions to advancing the noble cause of the United Nations,” state news agency Xinhua reported in October.
China is now the second-biggest funder to the U.N. peacekeeping budget and over the past two decades has bureaucratically rewired key parts of the U.N. to promote its interests to the disadvantage of the U.S. and its allies.
There are already high-profile cheerleaders in the West declaring that lasting peace in the 21st century hinges on China leading the way in reworking multilateral security mechanisms. “To stabilize the world order, China must become a central player in forging common rules and norms with its friends and competitors around the world,” former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said in a South China Morning Post op-ed last week.
Xi says he’s up to the job — but not in the way Washington wants. “China is willing to make efforts with Russia to assume the role of great powers, and play a guiding role to inject stability and positive energy into a world rocked by social turmoil,” Xi told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sept. 15 in a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization annual summit in Uzbekistan.
The SCO — a China-initiated dictators club which includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — is applauding on cue for the GSI’s touted superiority to existing multilateral mechanisms. “The Global Security Initiative is in line with the goals of the SCO and will make an important contribution to eliminating the root causes of international conflicts and achieving long-term peace and security in the world,” SCO Deputy Secretary-General Grigory Logvinov said this week.
But the Chinese government faces a challenge in convincing non-SCO U.N. member states of the wisdom and utility of China’s “no limits” partnership with Putin and alignment with his Ukraine invasion. China’s recent drastic escalation in military intimidation against Taiwan has also raised questions about Beijing’s commitment to nonviolent conflict resolution.
There are also growing international concerns about the rapid growth in China’s nuclear arsenal and its recent development of a hypersonic missile system. “We have seen the incredible expansiveness of what they’re doing with their nuclear force — which does not, in my opinion, reflect minimal deterrence,” Air Force Gen. Anthony Cotton told the Senate Armed Service Committee last week.
Even worse, a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights report on Chinese policies in Xinjiang released last month indicated that Beijing’s treatment of religious minorities in Xinjiang, in particular Muslim Uyghurs, “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” Beijing dismissed the report as “a patchwork of disinformation politically driven by the US” and then compounded China’s reputational damage by suspending all cooperation with U.N. rights bodies.
Expect Wang to be undeterred by that bad press.
“We may have woken up the dragon in terms of China may now be much more concerted in its efforts to weaken the international human rights system … and is also offering alternative institutions,” said Rana Siu Inboden, senior fellow with the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin.
Xi has a vested interest in producing a new road map for how countries define their national security and measures to protect it.
“You’ll see a push [by China] to try to reorganize global security governance in ways that are more favorable not just to Chinese foreign policy, or national interests … but also just the regime security interests of the Chinese Communist Party,” Greitens said. “That’s largely the pitch we’ve seen accompanying Chinese surveillance exports to a lot of cities and states around the world.”
It’s already happening. Last week, Xi offered to fund crash courses in China-style domestic security control to SCO member states. “China is willing to train 2,000 law enforcement officers for member countries in the next five years, establish a China-Shanghai Cooperation Organization training base for counterterrorism professionals and strengthen law enforcement capacity building for all parties,” Xi said at the SCO leaders summit in Uzbekistan last week.
Wang may also take the opportunity at UNGA to expand on Xi’s largesse for low-income countries — including foreign debt suspension and development aid. Xi pledged $3 billion in May 2021 to support Covid-19 response and economic recovery in developing countries.
Wang primed the pump by convening a meeting of the Group of Friends of the GDI in New York this week.
But recent reports on the debt load imposed on developing economies by Chinese lending and questions about the integrity of Beijing’s debt forgiveness programs have dented the credibility of China’s approach to overseas economic development.
Still, expect Wang to stick to the script: Xi has a vision of Chinese-led global governance that he’ll move to implement after he gets a third term as China’s paramount leader following next month’s 20th Party Congress.
But Wang can’t protect Xi from the bad optics of his decision to prioritize last week’s glad-handing session with fellow authoritarians while skipping an in-person appearance in New York.