The Dragon and the Eagle at the UN: Limits to Cooperation
from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

The Dragon and the Eagle at the UN: Limits to Cooperation

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U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao sit across from one another during a September 2009 meeting at the United Nations (Kevin Lamarque/ Courtesy Reuters).

--Beijing, June 10, 2011

The Internationalist is on the road this week, attending a Peking University workshop on “US-China Relations and the World Order.” My discussions here are reminding me that despite the best climate in years for China and the United States to cooperate in the United Nations (UN), the two countries just don’t always see eye-to-eye.

By the start of the new millennium, China had shrugged off decades of suspicion and embraced the UN, but that coincided with U.S. skepticism of the UN’s capacity and legitimacy under the Bush administration. Flash forward ten years, and the U.S. and Chinese leaders are concurrently turning to the UN. The Obama Administration, recognizing the UN as “flawed but indispensable” has forged effective coalitions in the UN Security Council (UNSC), which have achieved the strongest resolutions ever on Iran and North Korea. In March, the U.S. envoy, Susan Rice, persuaded China to abstain rather than veto resolution 1973, which authorized a no-fly zone over Libya. Similarly, Chinese President Hu Jintao has linked the ideals of the UN to the “Chinese vision of a ’harmonious world’ ” and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.

But a wide gap still stretches between U.S.-Chinese attitudes towards the UN.

First, the United Nations enjoys unchallenged pride of place in Chinese foreign policy, while the United States views it as one item on an a la carte menu of multilateral vehicles. Feng Zhongping of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) sums up the Chinese position that the UN is “the best platform for multilateral responses to common threats and challenges.”­ China sees the UN as the foundation for international legitimacy and the bedrock of the multilateral system and is therefore determined to seek UN approval for every international initiative. But the United States turns to the UN only when it can concretely address security threats or advance the ideals of its charter. When the UN fails to enforce non-proliferation norms, or provides a haven for human rights violators, for example, the United States is quite willing to employ other strategies. As Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg explained at CFR in May 2010, “We cannot allow the formalities of arrangements to become a complete barrier to action and the ability of the leading countries to come forward.”

Second, China considers the UN Charter and the UNSC as mechanisms to limit and control (rather than enable) external intervention, and to ensure that force is only used with unanimous support from the Permanent Five members of the UNSC. The Charter’s fundamental purpose, Chinese expert Gao Zugui notes, is to uphold the principles of “sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-aggression, and noninterference in internal affairs.” China, among the strongest supporters of non-intervention provisions contained in Article 2.7 of the UN Charter, insists that the UNSC “is the only body with the right to make decisions on the use of force.” The United States prefers a UNSC imprimatur, and is more than willing to operate outside its confines, including in NATO’s military action to end Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999, to say nothing of the U.S.-led Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003—both of which received strong criticism from China.

Third, the gap is narrowing, but the United States and China still differ in their definitions of threats to international peace and security, as well as readiness to authorize coercive action like sanctions under Chapter VII of the Charter. The United States has fiercely advocated for strong UNSC action against the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran. China reluctantly supports resolutions against both states only after they’ve been watered down. China also denies that internal conflict and gross human rights threaten international peace, rejecting UNSC initiatives on Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burma, and other oppressive regimes. Although it endorsed the “Responsibility to Protect” (RtoP), Beijing is wary of so-called “humanitarian intervention.”

On the other hand, China recently decided to abstain—rather than veto—resolution 1973 authorizing a no-fly zone in Libya and “all necessary means” to protect civilians threatened by the regime of Moammar Qaddafi. This may suggest a growing flexibility—and perhaps a growing concern with reputational costs of being perceived as blocking international action to prevent mass atrocities. Or it may reflect worries about the fate of 36,000 Chinese workers in Libya at the outset of hostilities.

Fourth, China values the UNSC as a framework for limiting U.S. unilateralism and constraining the unbridled exercise of U.S. power. The Council—and the United Nations more generally—provide a framework to cushion American military dominance, while facilitating China’s continued peaceful rise.

Finally, China places as much emphasis within the United Nations on the General Assembly (UNGA) as it does on the UN Security Council. From Beijing’s perspective, the UNGA and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) are useful forums to marshal developing country support, nurture its links to the Group of 77 and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and (in general) “democratize” world politics. The United States, in contrast, tends to regard UNGA and ECOSOC as irresponsible “circuses” whose members play to the galleries, cling to outdated post-colonial ideologies and bloc alignments, and engage in gratuitous bashing of Israel.

Still, the United States and China could expand their cooperation in peace operations and improving the UN’s effectiveness. The UN fields the world’s second largest deployed military, with more than 100,000 blue helmets serving in sixteen peace operations globally. China contributed admirably in operations from East Timor to Lebanon to Haiti, supplying over two thousand personnel to UN missions in 2010. (Although China’s financial contributions provide just over 3% of the UN’s peacekeeping budget and 2.5% of its regular budget, compared to 26% and 22%, respectively, for the United States.) More broadly, the U.S. and Chinese officials have both expressed frustration that the UNSC continues to saddle the UN with unrealistic and under-resourced mandates and could cooperate on this issue.

China has come a long way in its support for collective security, and has embraced a constructive role at the United Nations to underline its status as a responsible major power. But the United States and China are light years from a consensus on the UN’s role in international affairs.

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