China is making the most of its month-long U.N. Security Council presidency, using the mostly ceremonial role to advance the Chinese Communist Party’s version of multilateralism. During a high-level meeting this morning chaired by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, these efforts got a slight boost from the Biden administration.
This was no gathering that a U.S. secretary of state should have legitimized with his presence — and yet, Antony Blinken joined the livestream to represent Washington. Where Blinken could have sent a lower ranking official to poke holes in Beijing’s efforts to reshape international order and justify the Party’s abuses at home, he did this himself, though far more subtly than was warranted, and he said that the Trump administration had “undermined” the rules-based order.
First, though, he failed to clearly distinguish between Beijing’s preferred version of multilateralism — which traffics in Party-approved slogans but still sounds familiar to an American ear, with its emphasis on multilateralism and collective action to confront threats to climate change. The difference, of course, is stark: Chinese officials are only really offering up empty rhetoric to advance the party-state’s worldview, to justify human-rights abuses and excuse blunt exercises of political power.
The Party’s pronouncements, of course, amount to rank hypocrisy. “Splitting the world along ideological conflict line conflicts with a spirit of multilateralism, and is a regression of history,” Wang said, subtly rebuking Washington for working with its allies in non-U.N. arrangements, such as the Quad grouping, even though China pursues its own such pacts.
America’s top diplomat could have taken the occasion to point that out: When Chinese officials speak about multilateralism, they do so with false promises of peace and cooperation, when their intent is just to divert attention from severe human-rights abuses at home and coercive diplomacy abroad.
Blinken instead pledged to engage multilateral organizations on fighting the COVID pandemic and climate change: “We’ll also work with any country on these issues — including those with whom we have serious differences. The stakes are too high to let differences stand in the way of our cooperation.”
More promisingly, he went on to urge countries to meet their international commitment, and defend the rule-based order and human dignity, and speak out against countries’ political coercion.
Blinken’s defense of the equality of the U.N.’s members sounded like a rebuke of the gathering’s Chinese host, as well as of the Russian government (Blinken had just returned from a trip to Ukraine, where he emphasized U.S. support amidst the growing Russian military threat). “A state does not respect that principle when it purports to redraw the borders of another; or seeks to resolve territorial disputes by using or threatening force; or when a state claims it’s entitled to a sphere of influence to dictate or coerce the choices and decisions of another country,” he said.
He also took aim at another event that China is hosting during it Security Council presidency on the role of “emerging technology” in peace and security. Though this is likely Beijing’s attempt to make its case for its invasive use of surveillance and to justify other political priorities, Blinken appeared to flip the theme on its head, gently chastising the Party for its use of technology: “We must ensure that this new order is equipped to address new problems — like national security and human rights concerns raised by new technologies, from cyber attacks to surveillance to discriminatory algorithms.” This seems to be an effective way to turn Beijing’s diplomatic games into an opportunity to highlight its most egregious actions.
But these oblique references to unspecified instances of bad behavior were the extent of Blinken’s comments on China’s behavior on the international stage. If possible, he was more directly critical of the president’s domestic-political opponents, when describing why every country must be accountable for its violations of international law. “That includes the United States.”
“I know that some of our actions in recent years have undermined the rules-based order and led others to question whether we are still committed to it. Rather than take our word for it, we ask the world to judge our commitment by our actions,” Blinken said, seemingly referring to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from certain international bodies. He went on to list what he called the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts to “re-engage vigorously” with a number of U.N. bodies and multilateral treaties.
“We’re also taking steps, with great humility, to address the inequities and injustices in our own democracy,” he continued. “We do so openly and transparently for people around the world to see, even when it’s ugly, even when it’s painful. And we will emerge stronger and better for doing so.”
During his opening remarks, Wang did not offer a similarly conciliatory statement about his country’s failing; in fact, quite the opposite, he explained why China is triumphant at this point in time, the 100th anniversary of the Party’s founding and the 50th anniversary of the People’s Republic’s replacement of Taiwan at the U.N. “China will remain a builder of world peace, a contributor to global development, a defender of international order, and a provider of public goods,” said Wang.
There’s a place for a public reckoning with America’s historical injustices, and a place to reassure American allies about U.S. commitments to international engagement. That place is not, however, an international meeting hosted by a brutal authoritarian regime.