China hosts Thanksgiving trip for UN envoys

China will be hosting several top UN Security Council diplomats over the weekend as it serves during its one-month presidency.
China will be hosting several top UN Security Council diplomats over the weekend as it serves during its one-month presidency.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - While most United Nations diplomats will spend a long Thanksgiving weekend in New York, some top Security Council envoys are going to China, part of Beijing's latest efforts to flex its muscles as the United States steps back from international institutions.

Diplomats more accustomed to taking field trips to conflict zones such as Myanmar or the Democratic Republic of Congo will visit the sprawling port city of Guangzhou and Shenzhen during a weekend trip. Among them are top ambassadors from countries including Britain and the Netherlands.

China is hosting the visit, as it serves a one-month rotating presidency of the Security Council, where it is one of five permanent members.

"It's quite a striking gesture by the Chinese," said Mr Richard Gowan, a senior fellow at the United Nations University's Centre for Policy Research. "They want to show they're on par with the Americans."

China is using the moment to emphasise "multilateralism" at a time when much of the international community is frustrated with the Trump administration's "America First" strategy, citing the US withdrawal from agreements such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate change accord.

But the trip also comes as China takes a broader leadership role at the UN. The country has ramped up its involvement in peacekeeping missions and is now the single biggest donor to such efforts after the US. The itinerary for the envoys' China visit includes a tour of a peacekeeping training facility in Beijing.

The diplomatic manoeuvering coincides with a more assertive international posture. China is aggressively pressing its claims in the South China Sea and expanding its first overseas military facility, in Djibouti, and continuing to pursue its Belt and Road Initiative.

China formally began its one-month presidency of the Security Council earlier this month with a discussion on "strengthening multilateralism".

At the opening debate, US Ambassador Nikki Haley pushed back on the apparent slight, emphasising the historic US role as the leading funder of UN operations and said the value of multilateralism has to be determined based on its results. The US provides about 28 per cent of the UN's US$6.7 billion (S$9.2 billion) peacekeeping budget, compared to about 10 per cent for China.

"We do have a legitimate expectation to get a return on our investment for multilateralism," Ms Haley said on Nov 9. "We do not regard this work as charity. It is our contribution to the advancement of peace, security, and human rights in every region of the world."


While China often uses its leadership role at the UN to emphasise economic development - the UN's General Assembly held a forum this year in honour of President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative - it also often opposes the body's emphasis on human rights.


China isn't the first to give Security Council diplomats a chance to escape New York for someplace other than a conflict zone. Not long after taking her post, Ms Haley brought Security Council diplomats to the White House for lunch with President Donald Trump, a move seen as getting the president more invested directly in the US role at the global body.

This latest trip has drawn scrutiny from some human rights organisations, who accuse China of detaining a million Uighur Muslims in the western Xinjiang region, where they are allegedly being forced to undergo re-education programmes, a claim China has vehemently denied.

"It looks very sinister from our perspective, especially if ambassadors just avoid mentioning the elephant in the room, which is the detaining of Chinese Muslims in what are essentially centres that sound a lot like concentration camps," said Mr Louis Charbonneau, the UN director at Human Rights Watch. "We hope Security Council members will hold China's feet to the fire."