Xi Jinping’s Address to the UN General Assembly’s 70th Session: China projecting its power abroad in a low-key, pragmatic way

Xi Jinping’s Address to the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, New York City (28 September 2015)

The President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, made his first speech to the UN general assembly at the opening of its 70th session. An interesting speech it is too and English-language transcripts are accessible on the Internet. A full transcript can be found at this link.

Xi begins his speech by acknowledging the momentous events that formed to background to the formation of the United Nations and noting China’s particular role in defeating Japanese imperialism and aggression. He reminds his audience to learn from the tragedies and sacrifices made by soldiers and civilians alike during World War II to avoid repeating grave mistakes that would result in more violence, bloodshed and unnecessary deaths, and to strive for a better future and peace. Part of this striving involves promoting economic development and progress, and this requires co-operation, building partnerships and recognising that countries must be mutually interdependent to work on challenges and threats that spread beyond national borders.

To that end, the bulk of Xi’s speech emphasises strategies, exchanges and security networks and institutions that uphold and promote fair dealing and justice, end social and economic injustice, acknowledge joint contributions and share benefits among all partners. In particular Xi stressed that countries need to abandon a competitive Cold War mentality and paradigm in which some countries are good and others bad, based on one state’s particular interpretation of some nations’ economic and social ideologies, and urged that the UN and its Security Council return to their core roles of ending or minimising conflict and keeping peace.

Xi’s speech also urged his audience in the assembly and beyond to accept and respect nations’ differences and to recognise that no one culture or civilisation has all the answers to the world’s problems. Instead nations should appreciate one another’s history and uniqueness and draw on their differences for exchange of ideas and solutions to problems.

Interestingly Xi also referred to the need for societies to care for nature and to balance economic development with the natural environment. This is surely an acknowledgement by the Chinese government that in recent decades the country has neglected its natural ecosystems in its pursuit of economic and industrial progress to the detriment of nature and the Chinese people themselves.

The remainder of Xi’s speech is basically a list of pledges by China to continue supporting and working for peace, contributing to global development and pursuing policies and paths that promote co-operation. He finishes off by announcing the establishment of a 10-year US$100 million peace and development fund to support the UN’s work and to help set up a permanent peace-keeping group. China will also provide US$100 million free military assistance to the African Union to help establish a permanent standby force for emergencies in Africa.

Xi’s speech illustrates China’s typically pragmatic approach to projecting its power abroad: not by throwing its weight around in other countries close to home but by investing in projects in other nations, particularly in Third World nations, that bring economic development and industry to host countries and benefits for Chinese investors themselves. The emphasis on balance and harmony among partners might be seen to be drawing on Chinese values that promote stability and discourage individualist behaviours.

Whether the Chinese government and Chinese corporations are committed to the values and actions espoused in his speech in their behaviours remains to be seen however. Chinese investment in Africa and other developing countries has not always resulted in transfer of technical knowledge and skills from China to recipient countries, and the lopsided nature of Chinese economic investment and its effects has led to some resentment on the part of those countries where this investment takes place. Additionally China does not have a good record in investing in countries with human rights violations. If China is experiencing severe ecological problems in its own territory as a result of rapid development and industrialisation, it’s likely Chinese companies are doing no better in cleaning up their own messes in other countries where they operate. “Accepting” and “respecting” nations’ differences might mean ignoring possible consequences of Chinese economic investment and activity, especially where such actions are taking place in countries where respect for human rights and the natural environment is low, discouraged or punished.

Where the speech becomes very interesting is towards the end in which Xi pledges to commit resources to support the UN by establishing a peace-keeping force and to assist African nations to respond to national emergencies. This is far more than, say, Japan has done in the 70 years since the UN was founded. Xi’s pledges also potentially bring China into conflict with those Western countries that have an interest in destabilising particular African nations and keeping them subservient to their own interests and ideologies.