As China has increasingly positioned itself as a global leader and foremost champion of the Global South, Xi Jinping and other top Communist Party officials have been vociferous in their critiques of the U.S.-led international order. Through a bevy of initiatives and proposals — like Xi’s Global Security Initiative — offered in recent years, Beijing has made clear that it wants to see a wholesale reform of global governance. At the June 2022 BRICS summit, for example, Xi called for a “new type of international relations” that rejects hegemony and zero-sum thinking. What this ultimately amounts to is Beijing’s effort to undermine U.S. global leadership as the U.S.-China rivalry intensifies.

Vice President of China Han Zheng addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. (Dave Sanders/The New York Times)
Vice President of China Han Zheng addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. (Dave Sanders/The New York Times)

Despite its criticisms of the multilateral system, China has been a major benefactor of the United Nations. But Xi did not attend last week’s annual General Assembly, which is not all that unusual. This is likely, at least in part, due to domestic challenges, like China’s economic crisis, corruption scandals in the military and abrupt changes to senior personnel. But it does suggest that Xi is prioritizing other international institutions, like the BRICS grouping, that further China’s interests and approaches to global governance.

USIP’s Carla Freeman and Lyndi Tsering look at how China engages in the U.N. system today, how it approached this year’s General Assembly, the implications of that approach and how the United States should respond.

What does China’s involvement in the U.N. system look like today?

Since the U.N. officially switched recognition from Taiwan (i.e., the Republic of China) to the People’s Republic of China in 1971, Beijing has invested heavily in U.N. diplomacy, seeking to expand its influence in the international body through financial support, staffing, aligning votes and shaping U.N. language. In addition to wielding veto power as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), China’s bona fides with the Global South give it the opportunity to exercise exceptional influence within the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), whose 193-member countries are mostly developing nations.

China has made successful inroads toward elevating its profile across the U.N. system, particularly in recent years. It has become the second-largest contributor to the U.N.’s regular budget, as well as the second-largest source of funding for U.N. peacekeeping operations. Beijing has also secured senior positions in many specialized U.N. agencies and provides a significant number of personnel to U.N. peacekeeping operations — the most among UNSC members. 

Some studies also find that China has been quite effective at using its U.N. influence to promote its views and definition of human rights and to limit international criticism of its domestic human rights record. Similarly, it has used its weight across the U.N. system to prevent an expansion of Taiwan’s formal participation in international bodies, while also seeking to position its “one-China policy” as an article of international law. China has also grown adept at wielding its voting and veto power in the UNSC. Although China’s UNSC votes once often aligned with the United States, today they increasingly converge with Russia.

For decades, China has appeared to treat the UNGA as a key platform for amplifying its preferences, which under Xi has emphasized rethinking established approaches to global governance. In his first UNGA speech, Xi called for China to “lead reform of the global governance system,” promising $1 billion for a new “U.N. Peace and Development trust fund,” which Chinese officials join the U.N. secretary-general in steering. Xi has used subsequent UNGA meetings to rally support for China’s call for global governance reform, promoting his signature “community of shared future for mankind” concept. At the 2022 UNGA meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed Chinese solutions to a wide array of global development and security challenges.

How did China approach this year's UNGA?

China’s role at this year’s UNGA raised questions about Beijing’s sustained focus on the body. Xi’s absence was not especially unusual, as he rarely attends in person, generally sending Wang, China’s top diplomat, instead. The no-show follows Xi’s absence at the G20 summit in India, after widely covered attendance at last month’s BRICS summit. On the other hand, President Joe Biden attended both the G20 and this year’s UNGA.

Beijing’s choice for a representative at this year’s UNGA, lower-ranked vice president Han Zheng, can be construed as evidence that Xi is prioritizing institutions in which China plays a foundational or leading role — like BRICS or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. These are alternatives to institutions more closely associated with Pax Americana from the Bretton Woods organizations to established interpretations of global conventions and agreements — or what Beijing calls “pseudo-multilateralism.” Han’s speech to the UNGA unambiguously called for global governance reform in line with Xi’s “shared future” concept, drawing on language from a Chinese proposal on the reform and development of global governance.

One of the themes of this year’s UNGA was accelerating progress toward the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Han linked this objective to China’s Global Development Initiative (GDI), promising that “China will continue to contribute to building a global community of development.” Xi unveiled the GDI at the 2021 UNGA, casting it as a way for the U.N. to reach its 2030 sustainable development agenda, among other development goals. The influence of China’s thinking was reflected in Cuban President Díaz-Canel’s opening address at the Summit for Sustainable Development Goals, whose support for a “SDG stimulus” for developing countries included a direct nod to China. At a high-level meeting on the GDI held during UNGA, representatives from a number of developing countries articulated support for the initiative as an instrument toward making progress toward the SDGs.

Han also used his UNGA speech to underscore China’s position on human rights as something that should reflect “national conditions” rather than universal values, stating “diversity of civilization is an asset for human development.” He referenced Beijing’s new Global Civilization Initiative, which eschews a universalist approach to human rights and other values, including how democracy is defined.

Han’s comments were striking in their strong language around sovereignty and territorial integrity. “No one, no force should ever underestimate the firm resolve, strong will or the power of the Chinese people to safeguard their sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said. Han’s remarks were briefer than those made by Wang in 2022 but his statement that Beijing remains committed to “strive for peaceful reunification” across the Taiwan strait may be hard for many observers to square with Beijing’s surging military drills around Taiwan and frequently drawn parallels between Taiwan and Ukraine. Similarly, Han’s restatement of Beijing’s offer to help mediate a resolution to the Ukraine conflict is also shaded by Beijing’s deepening ties with Moscow.

What are the implications of China’s actions surrounding this year’s UNGA?

China’s lower-profile presence at this year’s UNGA and its ongoing effort to promote its role as an advocate for developing countries’ concerns within the U.N. system are not incompatible. Both speak to Beijing’s efforts to propel a new approach to global governance that hews more closely to its preferred approaches and priorities. Xi’s absence at UNGA sends a signal that being present to support a significant expansion of BRICS took precedence over the more routine UNGA gathering.

At the same time, Xi was not alone in making this choice. Biden was the only head of state of a permanent member of the UNSC member to attend the UNGA, giving the United States an opportunity to make the case for its international priorities to many heads of state and bolster his administration's diplomacy toward many of the world’s smaller countries who do not sit in other international forums, like the G20. At UNGA, Biden sought to engage counterparts from less powerful countries and remind them of U.S. support for the U.N. Charter and American resources.

Xi’s absence was also a reminder that China’s international image is embattled on fronts that have been important elements of its appeal to the developing world. China’s economic model no longer delivers the booming growth that had powered China’s global largesse. Now 10 years old, China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been downsized even as Beijing is pressured by growing numbers of debt relief requests from its BRI partners. China is in the throes of a domestic economic crisis, linked in part to recent economic policies, that is testing its ability to attract international capital. At the same time, its political system, long associated with stability, has been fraught with vertiginous high-level personnel changes, including the recent removal of China’s foreign and defense ministers.

Amid these crises, the Chinese government strives to recover its international image. By decrying all forms of criticism of and infringement on its “internal affairs,” including criticisms of Xi himself, China is doubling down on both its interpretation of sovereignty and desire to be viewed as a legitimate and credible power in the international system. To further these goals and distinguish itself from the United States, China supports the SDGs and maintains its posture as a developing country despite aggressive regional behaviors and evidence of hegemonic aspirations.

How should the United States approach China’s UNGA positioning?

China seeks to be a proactive player on the world stage. Rather than fully relying upon existing institutions or new parallel structures as means for promoting its interests, Beijing is propelling forward its new vision for global governance throughout multilateral spaces. The United States should invest in the U.N. and other multilateral forums to allay concerns that the current multilateral system will be abandoned in favor of regional multinational forums. Rejoining UNESCO marked one step toward evidence of U.S. legitimacy as a long-term investor in the U.N. system, especially given the ways in which China has used UNESCO and other organizations to insert its own narrative of world events.

Both the United States and China have declared renewed intent to give more countries a legitimate seat at the table in U.N. decision making. The United States should spearhead efforts to bring more countries and non-governmental organizations into critical conversations within the U.N. system, from pushing forth efforts to diminish the impacts of UNSC veto power and finding new avenues for multistakeholder collaboration. Regardless of the level of engagement, the United States must deepen and strengthen its own role in the U.N. system, continuing to stand for its own values and to bring voices to the table from both traditional positions of power and civil society.

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