A world disillusioned by the rise of Donald Trump in the US and his strong preference for extreme rightist views will no doubt look for other leaders in the global system. Would China be prepared to play that role? In a bi-polar world which is what it is today, international affairs turn into a zero-sum game in which loss by one power turns into gain for the other. This is the way things seem to be moving at the time of the beginning of the Trump era.
Beijing is entering the space created by the likely withdrawal of the US from a leadership role in international trade. With the US under Trump not inclined to use its considerable economic and military leverage to stay involved in world affairs, Beijing sees an opportunity. This was articulated by the end-November visit to Beijing by Antonio Guterres, the incoming UN Secretary General. During the visit, the Chinese President Xi Jinping praised the UN, using the language not heard in Beijing with reference to the way it views the world body. The president called the UN “the most universal, representative and authoritative intergovernmental organisation.” China’s leaders focused in particular on some of the UN initiatives. During the election campaign, Trump had called global warming a hoax advanced by China to deindustrialise the US. He had promised to tear into shreds the Paris Agreement once he took office.
According to the New York Times’ Jane Perlez, “China’s campaign to enhance its role at the UN dates from September 2015, when Mr. Xi made his first visit to the annual General Assembly meeting in New York. There he pledged that China would establish a permanent force of 8,000 troops and donate $1 billion to a United Nations’ ‘peace and development fund.’ Of the five permanent members of the Security Council, China has deployed the most troops in peacekeeping operations, including to conflict zones like South Sudan where two Chinese soldiers were killed on a mission in July.”
While China is making a serious play for leadership in world affairs, there are areas in which it will need to do more. One of these is of special interest for the new Secretary General. Gutteres headed the Office of the UN High Commission for Refugees since 2005 and had become a powerful advocate of the rights of refugees. His voice was prominent in 2015 while Europe dealt with the refugee crisis that brought more than a million people into the continent who escaped the wars being fought in the various parts of the Middle East. China had not strictly followed the practices advanced by UNHCR in dealing with those who came into its territory to escape the rigours of life in North Korea. The Chinese treated them as “economic refugees,” the category that allowed them to be deported back to their country of origin. While Gutteres welcomed the warmth of his reception in Beijing, he made it clear that the treatment of refugees was not the only issue that required more work from the Chinese. With Foreign Minister Wang Yi at his side in a meeting with the press, the incoming Secretary General called for “an effective combination in human rights, of civil and political rights and the economic and social rights in a balanced way.” Before taking office on January 1, Gutteres is visiting the heads of the government that hold permanent seats in the Security Council. He has met Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping but is still to call on President-elect Donald Trump. He will no doubt give the same advice to Trump who has taken a rather cavalier approach to the use of torture, banning the entry of Muslims into the US and enhanced surveillance of their communities, and forced deportation of foreigners living in his country.
China’s various moves to create a larger presence in the global system is more of a zero-sum game than was the case when, during the years of the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union competed for global dominance. Moscow was kept out of the many parts of the global system. While it was in the UN Security Council it was not allowed to join other global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Group. China is in these institutions and will be more effective in competing with the US from within the system rather than from the outside.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 5th, 2016.