U.S.-China Brawl Sharpens on the Global Stage
The presidents of the United States and China squared off in their speeches to the annual General Assembly on Tuesday, punctuating a superpower rivalry that the leader of the 193-member organization, Secretary-General António Guterres, has called a great global risk.
On the coronavirus, global warming, human rights, international cooperation and a range of other issues, President Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, laid out starkly differing views in their prerecorded remarks, underscoring the growing split between the United States and China during the first three years of Mr. Trump’s administration.
Mr. Trump blamed China for the coronavirus scourge that has traumatized the world and demanded that the United Nations hold the country accountable. Mr. Xi, clearly anticipating Mr. Trump’s attacks, portrayed the virus as everyone’s challenge and described China’s response as scientific, generous and responsible.
“Any attempt at politicizing or stigmatizing this issue must be rejected,” Mr. Xi said.
Mr. Trump described China as a leading degrader of the environment and asserted the United States has done more to reduce pollution since withdrawing from the Paris climate accord. Mr. Xi reiterated China’s commitment to cut its emissions and reduce the threat of global warming.
The Chinese president strove to portray China’s global ambitions as good for all. He said Beijing had “no intention to fight either a cold war or a hot one with any country.”
Mr. Trump has been a longstanding critic of the United Nations and has challenged its multilateral diplomacy as an impediment to his “America First” policy — even as the United States remains the biggest single contributor to the United Nations budget.
But as Mr. Trump has withdrawn support for U.N. agencies such as the World Health Organization and Human Rights Council, China has been stepping in to fill the void as the No. 2 financial contributor to the United Nations. China has taken leadership in a number of U.N. agencies over the past few years.
“If the United Nations is to be an effective organization, it must focus on the real problems of the world,” Mr. Trump said. “This includes terrorism, the oppression of women, forced labor, drug trafficking, human and sex trafficking, religious persecution and the ethnic cleansing of religious minorities.”
He asserted that “American prosperity is the bedrock of freedom and security all over the world.”
The U.S.-China rivalry has emerged as a chief worry for Mr. Guterres, and he made that clear in his opening remarks to the annual gathering.
“We are moving in a very dangerous direction,” Mr. Guterres said. “Our world cannot afford a future where the two largest economies split the globe in a Great Fracture — each with its own trade and financial rules and internet and artificial intelligence capacities. A technological and economic divide risks inevitably turning into a geostrategic and military divide. We must avoid this at all costs.”
With the world in crisis, the U.N. faces new questions.
The General Assembly held this year, the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations from the wreckage of World War II, comes against a backdrop of cascading crises that Mr. Guterres has called the most serious challenge it has ever faced.
“People are hurting, our planet is burning,” he said.
As with other large institutional gatherings, the United Nations was forced to radically alter the way the General Assembly is conducted this year. No world leaders attended in person, delivering their remarks via prerecorded videos. Each delegation was limited to one or two representatives, spaced far apart and wearing masks in the General Assembly hall.
Beyond that, as it marks its anniversary, the United Nations is facing tough questions about its own effectiveness — and even its relevance.
“The U.N. is weaker than it should be,” said Mary Robinson, a former U.N. High Commissioner for human rights and the first woman to become president of Ireland.
When the United Nations was founded by the Allied victors, the goal was to avert descent into another global apocalypse. And for all its shortcomings, the organization that Eleanor Roosevelt called “our greatest hope for future peace” has at least helped achieve that.
Still, the organization is struggling like perhaps never before, unable to make headway against a worldwide contagion, deep economic depression on the horizon, intense climate change, rising hunger, growing legions of refugees and the advent a new cold war between the United States and China.
In country after country, strongman leaders are championing a new era of intense nationalism — the very opposite of the United Nations’ multilateralism — and many of them took the virtual podium on Tuesday to drive the wedge further.
Carrie Booth Walling, a political-science professor at Albion College and an expert on U.N. humanitarian interventions, said the turning inward of many countries afflicted by the virus might bode badly for the United Nations and the diplomacy it embodies.
“What is really frightening at this moment,” Dr. Walling said, is “the state of multilateralism in general, and whether the world’s governments and people will see the value of multilateral cooperation.”
Women at the lectern? Not til Wednesday.
As unfamiliar as much of this year’s U.N. proceedings may appear, one thing may feel very familiar indeed: the people doing the talking. Barring a last-minute change, the lineup of leaders addressing the General Assembly on Tuesday, the first day of the General Debate, will be all men.
Not until Wednesday will a woman take the (virtual) podium. That would be President Zuzana Caputova of Slovakia, coming in at No. 52.
Mr. Guterres, who is from Portugal, is a self-described feminist who has brought gender parity at the most senior levels of management. He says he wants to bring parity to all levels of the organization by 2028.
But he has acknowledged that fundamental change will not be easy.
“This patriarchal structure of society is still deeply rooted and needs to be very strongly shaken,” he said in an interview with The Times newsletter In Her Words earlier this year.
Duterte is to address the General Assembly for the first time.
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who has repeatedly insulted the United Nations and blocked its efforts to investigate hundreds of killings related to his drug war, is scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday. It will be the first time that Mr. Duterte will appear before the General Assembly since he assumed office in 2016.
The U.N. Human Rights Council last year greenlighted a resolution seeking comprehensive reports on the human rights situation in the Philippines. The organization’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, also accused Mr. Duterte’s government of carrying out his campaign against drugs “without due regard for the rule of law.” She said that an investigation found that the killings there had been “widespread and systematic” and continued four years into Mr. Duterte’s term.
Robert Borje, Mr. Duterte’s chief presidential protocol officer, said the president would address the coronavirus pandemic, peace and order, regional geopolitical development, climate change and the rule of law as well as justice and human rights.
But Karapatan, a Philippine rights group, said it expected Mr. Duterte, 75, to try to sway the General Assembly on whether he was carrying out his drug war fairly, despite evidence to the contrary.
“We anticipate another speech which will make it look like everything is great in terms of the government response to the pandemic, that the draconian policies and measures are justifiable to battle the so-called terrorists and useless critics,” said Cristina Palabay, secretary general of Karapatan. These, she said, are “all lies.”
Mr. Duterte extended a state of calamity in the country by a year on Monday, allowing the government to draw emergency funds more quickly in the pandemic. The Philippines has more than 291,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, among the highest number in Southeast Asia.
Rick Gladstone and Jason Gutierrez contributed reporting.