While most UN diplomats are to spend a long Thanksgiving weekend in New York City, some top UN Security Council envoys are going to China, part of Beijing’s latest efforts to flex its muscles as the US steps back from international institutions.
Diplomats more accustomed to taking field trips to conflict zones such as Myanmar or the Democratic Republic of the Congo are to visit China’s sprawling port city of Guangzhou and Shenzhen during a weekend trip attended by top ambassadors from countries including the UK and the Netherlands.
China is hosting the visit as it serves a one-month rotating presidency of the Security Council, of which it is one of five permanent members.
“It’s quite a striking gesture by the Chinese,” UN University Center for Policy Research senior fellow Richard Gowan said. “They want to show they’re on par with the Americans.”
China is using the moment to emphasize “multilateralism” at a time when much of the international community is frustrated with the “America First” strategy of the administration of US President Donald Trump, citing the US’ withdrawal from agreements such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord.
However, the trip also comes as China takes a broader leadership role at the UN. The country has ramped up its involvement in peacekeeping missions and is now the single biggest donor to such efforts after the US.
The itinerary for the envoys’ China visit includes a tour of a peacekeeping training facility in Beijing.
The diplomatic maneuvering coincides with a more assertive international posture. China is aggressively pressing its claims in the South China Sea and expanding its first overseas military facility, in Djibouti, and continuing to pursue its Belt and Road Initiative.
China formally began its one-month presidency of the Security Council earlier this month with a discussion on “strengthening multilateralism.”
At the opening debate on Nov. 9, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley pushed back on the apparent slight, emphasizing the historic US role as the leading funder of UN operations, saying that the value of multilateralism has to be determined based on its results.
The US provides about 28 percent of the UN’s US$6.7 billion peacekeeping budget, compared with about 10 percent for China.
“We do have a legitimate expectation to get a return on our investment for multilateralism,” Haley said. “We do not regard this work as charity. It is our contribution to the advancement of peace, security and human rights in every region of the world.”
While China often uses its leadership role at the UN to emphasize economic development — the UN General Assembly earlier this year held a forum in honor of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) Belt and Road Initiative — it also often opposes the body’s emphasis on human rights.
China is not the first to give Security Council diplomats a chance to escape New York for someplace other than a conflict zone. Not long after taking her post, Haley took Security Council diplomats to the White House for lunch with Trump, a move seen as getting the president more directly invested in the US role at the global body.
The latest trip has drawn scrutiny from some human rights organizations, who accuse China of detaining 1 million Uighur Muslims in western Xinjiang, where they are allegedly being forced to undergo re-education programs, a claim China has vehemently denied.
“It looks very sinister from our perspective, especially if ambassadors just avoid mentioning the elephant in the room, which is the detaining of Chinese Muslims in what are essentially centers that sound a lot like concentration camps,” said Louis Charbonneau, the UN director at Human Rights Watch. “We hope Security Council members will hold China’s feet to the fire.”
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