Xi’s UN Speech: When Rhetoric Did Not Meet Reality

1 October 2020 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • General Secretary Xi Jinping’s recent speech on the occasion of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding of the United Nations is a classic example of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) doublespeak.
  • Almost every statement was hypocritical when examined in light of the CCP’s actions.
  • Those range from the suppression of elements of the Chinese population, to the manipulation of international laws and regulations and to coercive international efforts.
  • As the CCP is fast learning, however, many major powers around the globe, having recognised the CCP’s hypocrisy, are now pushing back.

Summary

General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, recently delivered a speech to the seventy-fifth United Nations General Assembly via video link. It was a classic example of obfuscation and sheer hypocrisy. It was predicated on the premise that China is morally right in everything that it does, an idea that was posited by Andrew Scobell of the RAND Corporation. In his book, China’s Use of Military Force: Beyond the Great Wall and the Long March, Scobell points out that a “Cult of Defence” permeates Chinese strategic culture, according to which ‘Chinese leaders to rationalise all military deployment as defensive’, despite the fact that ‘changes in the People’s Liberation Army’s doctrine and capabilities over the past two decades suggest that China’s twenty-first century leaders may use military force more readily than their predecessors.’

That tendency towards the use of military force is based, in turn, on two factors: first, Chinese policy is severely influenced by its civilisational history, which tends towards the use force and, second, because China has a “unique traditional philosophy”. In Scobell’s view, China’s assumptions about its perennial justness increase its propensity to use force by giving it a ‘defensive moral rationale for using force, even offensive force’. That rationalisation is evidenced by its annexation of Tibet and its threat to use military means, if necessary, to “reintegrate” Taiwan, which it sees as a rebel province. Thus, when Capt. Walker D. Mills of the US Marine Corps published an article titled “Deterring the Dragon: Returning U.S. Forces to Taiwan”, in the Military Review, the journal of the US Army, in which he noted that it may be necessary for the US to post troops to Taiwan in order to deter an attack on that country by China, the editor of China’s state-backed Global Times, Hu Xijin, tweeted:

I must warn people in the US and Taiwan who hold this kind of thinking. Once they take the step of returning US forces to Taiwan, the PLA will definitely start a just war to safeguard China’s territorial integrity. China’s Anti-Secession Law is a tiger with teeth. [Emphasis added.]

The idea of China’s inherent “justness” is ingrained in its collective reasoning and underpins it. Mr Hu’s tweet demonstrates the validity of Professor Scobell’s insight into the Chinese Communist Party’s use of “just” force to achieve a goal. Mr Xi’s speech, on the other hand, is a tour de force of the hypocrisy that permeates it.

Analysis

In his speech, Mr Xi noted that ‘Mutual respect and equality among all countries, big or small, represents the progress of our times and is the foremost principle of the UN Charter. … Even less should one be allowed to do whatever it likes and be the hegemon, bully or boss of the world.’ That statement brings to mind then Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s expressed contempt for the region at the ASEAN Regional Forum that was held in Hanoi in 2010. Representatives of several South-East Asian countries, fearing China’s growing power, asked the US to re-assert its role and even mediate in disputes in the South China Sea. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed those requests, leading Mr Yang to lose his composure and exit the meeting. He returned an hour later to deliver a 30-minute-long monologue in which he mocked his Vietnamese hosts and then declared, ‘China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.’

Mr Yang is an acknowledged architect of China’s foreign policy and that statement was decidedly out of character. If Mr Xi truly believes that all countries are equal, it would nevertheless go a long way towards mitigating the region’s fears, if he were to denounce Mr Yang’s statement, no matter how he may couch his own. It would go much further if he were to renounce China’s South China Sea/West Philippine Sea claims. That is, however, extremely unlikely.

That leads to the issue of China’s territorial claims. Beijing’s South China Sea/West Philippine Sea and East China Sea claims are well-known. What is not as well-known is the fact that it also claims Mongolia, for instance, in its entirety. China has territorial disputes with over twenty countries, as the map below demonstrates. It also claims parts of Nepal. It is its claim over Tajikistan, however, that is dangerous because that claim could upset Russia, which sees Tajikistan as part of its strategic backyard.

Tajikistan is, however, only one aspect of Russia’s unease with China’s growing influence in Central Asia. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), as are Armenia, Belarus and Russia, which is the de-facto leader of the Union. The EAEU has a total population of over 180 million people who are scattered over 20 million square kilometres of land, which makes up 14 per cent of the world’s total land mass, a GDP of US$1.9 trillion ($2.7 trillion), over US$750 billion (~$1 trillion) in combined exports and accounts for 1.7 per cent of the world’s imports. It would be politically and economically ruinous for Russia if it were to lose control of the Union. It is important for Moscow, therefore, that China’s Belt and Road Initiative not outmatch the influence that it wields over the EAEU. Russia is forced to walk a fine line between attracting much-needed Chinese investment across the EAEU and ceding control over it to China. Beijing, on the other hand, has refused to invest in any of the forty transportation infrastructure proposals that Moscow put to it. That led Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, to boycott the video-conference on Belt and Road co-operation that China hosted in July. Russia is, no doubt, increasingly aware of the threat that China poses to it.

Russia has further reason to worry about China’s territorial claims, however, as a previous FDI paper noted. Tajikistan is only the tip of the iceberg; China could also lay claim to Siberia and Russia’s ice-free port of Vladivostok, based on its claims to historic antecedent, such as that controlled by the Qing Dynasty, as the map below shows.

Mr Xi stated that the UN should stand for justice. He did not state, interestingly, what China views as justice. Is it just not to recognise the finding of an international UN-mandated Tribunal that China has no claim to those parts of the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea that lie beyond its exclusive economic zone? Is it just to hold foreign nationals hostage, as in the case of the two Canadians, merely because a Chinese national was arrested in Canada? Is it morally or legally justifiable to arrest an Australian of Chinese ethnicity because China does not recognise dual-nationalities or even the new nationalities of previous Chinese citizens? Is it morally or legally defensible to enact the repressive measures that the Chinese Communist Party does on its Uighur population, such as banning traditional Muslim names and beards, and forcing them to eat pork and drink alcohol in its bid to banish Islam altogether from China? Is it morally correct to, for all intents and purposes, imprison Uighur people in what are little more than concentration camps that are euphemistically called “re-education centres”? Is it morally justifiable to raze mosques in their hundreds, if not thousands? And what of Mr Xi’s confidential diktats on China’s mass detention of its Uighur population that were leaked, statements that ordered Chinese officials to “show no mercy”? What are we to make of China’s expansion of its mass forced labour programme in Tibet? It has been reported, furthermore, that China plans to inject thousands of drug company employees, government officials and others with fully-untested COVID-19 vaccines. Could it be that the Chinese Communist Party is cutting corners in the testing process in order to be able to claim that it developed an effective vaccine first? Or is it bypassing the full testing phase in order to be able to extend its influence in developing countries around the world? Or, perhaps, both?

It is difficult, given those examples, to reconcile with his actions Mr Xi’s statement that:

Big countries should lead by example in advocating and upholding the international rule of law and in honouring their commitments. There must be no practice of exceptionalism or double standards.

That is hypocrisy, pure and simple, and deserves to be called out – unless, of course, Beijing acknowledges that Professor Scobell is correct in his assessment that China sees itself as being morally superior to every other country. That would appear to be the case, going by Mr Xi’s comment that China’s actions in Xinjiang were ‘totally correct’, given the rising levels of happiness among the various ethnic communities of Xinjiang province, and his decision to continue with his repressive measures against the Uighur people of that province in total disregard of international opinion.

Mr Xi’s grandiose exclamation that, ‘What we need to do is to replace conflict with dialogue, coercion with consultation and zero-sum with win-win. We need to pursue the common interests of all as we each work to safeguard our own interests’ is equally interesting. It would be interesting to have his views on why there are heightened tensions and violence along the Line of Actual Control, the de-facto border between China and India, why Chinese and Indian troops died recently, and why other Chinese troops on their way to that border were pictured sobbing. The explanations that they had just left their parents or were emotional because of the song that they were singing are untenable. Is the fact that their potential deaths would bring to an end their families, given the depredations of the Communist Party’s one-child policy, a possible reason?

Mr Xi’s statement that ‘It is imperative that the representation and voice of developing countries be increased so that the UN could be more balanced in reflecting the interests and wishes of the majority of countries in the world’ raises questions as to why, if he truly believed in that sentiment, China has blocked India’s bid for permanent representation on the UN Security Council. After all, Indians account for one in every seven individuals globally, India is the third-largest economy in Asia and, the current pandemic notwithstanding, has the potential to remain one of the most rapidly, if not the fastest, developing major economies. Given its developing economic and soft power, should it not be given a seat on the Security Council, along with Germany and Japan?

When Mr Xi stated that ‘No country has the right to dominate global affairs, control the destiny of others, or keep advantages in development all to itself. Even less should one be allowed to do whatever it likes and be the hegemon, bully or boss of the world’, it was difficult to determine if he was referring to the US or trying to cover up the mirror in front of him. Given the number of countries that are indebted to China due to its predatory loans, it must be asked if the goal of that strategy is to dominate the borrowing countries and, if that is indeed the case, how it sits with Mr Xi’s comment. Some of the borrowing countries are deeply indebted to China. They include Pakistan, which owes China around $50 billion, and Cambodia, whose debt of $5 billion accounts for 29 per cent of its GDP.

What of his statement that: ‘There must be no practice of exceptionalism or double standards. Nor should international law be distorted and used as a pretext to undermine other countries’ legitimate rights and interests…’? Would that apply to the Chinese Communist Party’s manipulation and distortion of the WTO rules? Would that apply to its decision to, for example, subsidise state-owned enterprises in China to undercut prices that foreign companies charge, thereby putting them out of business and monopolising markets? Would that apply to demands that Chinese firms be granted equal access to foreign markets as local firms but restricting market access to foreign firms in China?

Given the Chinese Communist Party’s double-speak over the years, it is hardly surprising that senior officials of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue recently came together to ‘discuss ways to work together to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, promote transparency and counter disinformation, and protect the rules-based order the region has long enjoyed’. Of particular note were their discussions regarding:

  • ways to promote the use of trusted vendors for 5G (telecommunications) networks;
  • their co-ordination on counter-terrorism, maritime, cyber-security and regional connectivity;
  • a focus on quality infrastructure;
  • the need to improve supply chains in critical minerals, medical supplies, pharmaceuticals; and
  • their strong support for ASEAN centrality and ASEAN-led regional architecture, including ways to work together in the Mekong sub-region, in the South China Sea, and across the Indo-Pacific to support international law, pluralism, regional stability, and post-pandemic recovery efforts.

Not once did the statement mention China; it did not need to. Every one of those discussion points was directed at countering a Chinese effort to either subdue a country or to gain an advantage for itself. It is equally unsurprising that there is a dawning consensus that China seeks, and is willing, to impose its will on other countries, which likely led to Western countries rebuking China at a UN forum.

The hypocrisy inherent in Mr Xi’s speech was, in light of the issues noted above, astounding and only matched by his ability to deliver it with a straight face.

*****

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