Coauthored with Naomi Egel, research associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
On Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping will deliver his first address to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). The historic moment is an opportunity to marvel at how dramatically China’s attitude toward the United Nations (UN) has evolved since the days of Mao. Four decades ago, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dismissed the UN as an instrument of U.S. (and broader Western) imperialism. Today, its leaders regard the world body as a useful vehicle for pursuing China’s national interests, demonstrating responsible Chinese behavior, and checking U.S. power and interventionist tendencies. For Beijing, the UN offers a platform to showcase China’s aspirations and growing capacity for constructive global leadership. Accordingly, expect President Xi to trumpet China’s contributions to world order from the podium on September 28.
It’s easy to overlook how pro-UN the Chinese have become, given the hubbub over new Chinese-led institutions like the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—bodies which could in principle undermine more encompassing organizations like the UN and the World Bank. But Beijing is hardly alone in selective multilateralism. The United States itself frequently sidesteps formal bodies to pursue its interests in narrower alliances like NATO or “minilateral” coalitions of the willing like the Proliferation Security Initiative. To be sure, China’s embrace of UN norms remains uneven, particularly when it comes to human rights. Beijing is also skeptical of Western-led armed humanitarian intervention, even in the case of mass atrocities. Still, it frames this resistance as fealty to the core UN Charter principles of territorial integrity, sovereign equality, and nonintervention.
On balance, Beijing has come to view the United Nations as a valuable instrument to advance its burgeoning global interests, while reassuring other member states that it will exercise its power responsibly. China’s increased UN activism is particularly apparent in three spheres.
Peacekeeping: When the People’s Republic of China first joined the United Nations in 1971, it refused to contribute any troops to peacekeeping operations. Today, it provides far more peacekeepers than any other permanent member of the UN Security Council. Indeed, it ranks eighth globally among the UN’s 193 member states. Last December Beijing stepped up its game by committing its first full infantry battalion of seven hundred troops, this time to UNMISS, the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. Strategic interests no doubt played a role here, inasmuch as 86 percent of combined Sudanese and South Sudanese oil exports go to China. But Beijing’s support for peacekeeping—and UN collective security generally—is not simply situational. China has built two major peacekeeping training centers, and is increasingly seeking to shape peacekeeping operations. Still, it remains to be seen if China’s enhanced contributions to peacekeeping operations further expand when its strategic interests are less directly involved—or where there are fewer opportunities for investment.
Combatting climate change: At both the Kyoto (1997) and Copenhagen (2009) climate change conferences, China’s opposition helped sink any hope of a global agreement containing binding emissions targets for developing countries. In contrast, China has adopted a far more constructive attitude in the run-up to the pivotal UN climate conference in Paris in November-December 2015. The reasons are both domestic and international. At home, the dire consequences of climate change and air pollution are increasingly obvious. Abroad, the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have abandoned the quest for a uniform approach to mitigation and adaptation, endorsing instead the principle of national flexibility. This has provided policy scope for China to make meaningful commitments tailored to its own circumstances. In November 2014, China signed the historic U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change. More recently, ahead of the Paris summit, it submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), promising to reduce Chinese CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by 60-65 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 (Beijing had already committed in 2009 to a 40-45 percent cut by 2020). By any measure, China has come a long way from its stance during the Kyoto negotiations—where it insisted that, as a developing country, it would not reduce its carbon emissions.
Sustainable Development Goals: Finally, China has played an active role in formulating and supporting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), intended to guide the world’s fight against poverty and inequality for the next fifteen years. China, of course, is itself one of history’s greatest development success stories. By lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, the country made a disproportionate contribution to the Millennium Development Goals. At the multilateral level, China in 2013 endorsed UN leadership in organizing and coordinating the post-2015 global development agenda. In July 2015, it outlined its own vision for global development cooperation, declaring that the SDGs must be “open and inclusive” and “transformative and innovative.” At the same time, China emphasizes the need to respect national sovereignty and diversity in development models, rather than accept a one-size-fits-all approach based on a single checklist. It has also championed the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” for implementing the SDGs—meaning all countries embrace the same goals, but their relative burdens must reflect their material circumstances and individual development priorities. This orientation plays well with many developing country governments, including those reliant on Chinese aid, but many traditional donors remain concerned that this “no strings attached” approach to development cooperation may run athwart of established international norms and fuel corruption in recipient countries.
On balance, China’s increased engagement with the UN system is something that the United States should welcome. Ten years ago this week, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick famously called upon China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in world politics. That phrase has never been a popular one in Beijing—where it struck Chinese leaders as arrogant condescension from a superpower all too often given to bouts of irresponsibility. But Zoellick was onto something. Provided it is conceived as a universal principle, the notion of great power responsibility is at the core of world order. As global power diffuses, the United States and other established powers increasingly rely upon China and other emerging economies to advance shared goals, including protecting civilians in conflict zones, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving the quality of life for people around the world.
Of course, China’s active participation in the UN system offers no guarantee that Chinese and U.S. preferences will converge, or that they will share a similar interpretation of the UN Charter. The biggest clashes have been, and likely will remain, over the boundaries of national sovereignty in an age of universal human rights, including the appropriate enforcement role of the UNSC in responding to situations of mass atrocities. In the wake of the Libya operation, in which China (as well as Russia) felt burned by the West, Beijing (and Moscow) have resisted authorizing firm UNSC steps against the Assad regime in Syria. China can claim that it is defending the core UN principle of sovereignty, but the end result is to paralyze the world’s leading body for international peace and security.
The UN system has of course evolved since 1945: sovereignty is not the only principle upon which the organization rests. In 2005, UN member states unanimously endorsed the “responsibility to protect,” recognizing that traditional state sovereignty must be contingent on a state protecting its citizens from mass slaughter. China’s expanded participation in the UN system offers an opportunity to encourage China to play by all of the UN’s rules—provided, of course, that the United States is willing to do likewise.