Understanding China's motives: the UN as a platform for Chinese diplomacy


Picture of Jing Men
Jing Men

Prof. Dr. Jing Men is the Baillet Latour Chair of European Union - China Relations

This piece is part of an ongoing series on China’s role in international institutions.

Since the dawn of the 21st century, the world has been cautious about the rise of China. Situated in the Far East, China follows an authoritarian political system and practises state capitalism. The economic reform carried out since the late 1970s has sharply increased its productivity and has led to China being crowned the second largest global economy. Furthermore, China has a distinct history and culture that stands apart from those of European countries. For Europe, China’s experience is unfamiliar and its intention unclear. Given that European countries are accustomed to their own development model, China’s rise has become a clear challenge.

As a matter of fact, China’s rise is part of the ‘Chinese dream’ – having experienced the ‘century of humiliation’ between 1840 and 1940, China had, for a long time, split its identity into two polar opposites: inferiority and superiority. Ashamed by its recent history, China longed to restore its role as a strong global actor and, based on past experience, grew to recognise the crucial importance of sovereignty. China’s defence of sovereignty is exemplified most noticeably in its emphasis on sovereign rights. This stands in sharp contrast with European countries, who often stress human rights protection. To a certain degree, the difference in behaviour between China and European countries in the field of human rights owes itself partially to the difference between modern and postmodern states.

Compared to major European countries, China used to be a rule-taker instead of a rule-maker. Although China joined the UN in 1971, it had, for a long time, been quite passive, abstaining from practising its veto powers until 1997. In total, China has vetoed ten times in the UN. Compared with other permanent members of the Security Council, China has availed of its veto powers the least, thus demonstrating that while China is eager to promote its influence in the UN, it does not want to be brought into direct confrontation with European countries.

there continues to be an ongoing debate … as to whether or not China should still be treated as a developing country

Together with its growing economic power, China intends to be more influential in the international arena. The UN has become an ideal platform for China to promote its own norms, values and development model. As the sole representative of developing countries in the Security Council, China has the advantage of gaining support from the majority of UN members, especially where human rights and development issue are concerned.

For China, climate change is an issue closely linked to development. As a result, it must be understood that action on climate change should not come at the expense of economic growth. In comparison to developed countries, China, as a developing country, has shared but differentiated responsibilities. Yet there continues to be an ongoing debate between China and Europe as to whether or not China should still be treated as a developing country. As China’s economy transitions into one of the world’s largest, there are more and more voices calling for China to take on increased responsibilities. Interestingly, while China is hesitant to join the club of developed countries in combating climate change, it actively contributes to peacekeeping operations.

Despite what Fukuyama declared … the competition between these differing ideologies never really ended

While China and Europe share common interests in maintaining world peace and supporting global sustainable development, the policies and approaches that have been adopted in order to realise these goals diverge. Unsurprisingly, China and Europe embrace different ideologies; different systems of ideas lead to different political forms and economic models. Despite what Fukuyama declared at the end of the Cold War, the competition between these differing ideologies never really ended. Like it or not, on a wide range of issues, competition between China and European countries in the UN will be unavoidable in the decades to come.

In the meantime, cooperation coexists with competition. China and Europe are bound together by international trade, globalisation and economic interdependence. Without cooperation between them, it is difficult to reach an agreement or find solutions on internationally important issues ranging from security, to economic and social development, to climate change. The EU, in its latest China policy paper, describes its strategy in dealing with China as follows: “principled, practical and pragmatic”. While European countries adhere to their normative principles, they do not refuse opportunities to cooperate with China when such behaviours conform to European interests.

The UN, therefore, is a unique platform where we are sure to witness both competition and cooperation between China and European countries for years to come.

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