Trump’s criticism of multilateralism was met with support for the same from his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping
The United Nations (UN) marked its 75th anniversary on Tuesday, September 22, with a “virtual general debate” of world leaders at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) – a first in the UN’s history, as concerns over escalating tensions between the United States and China took center stage.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres began proceedings by urging the world to prevent a Cold War and join efforts in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
He called the health crisis “our own 1945 moment,” referring to the Second World War, and described COVID-19 as “a toxic virus shaking the democratic underpinnings in many countries.”
“We must do everything to avoid a new Cold War,” Guterres said.
“We are moving in a very dangerous direction. 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,” Guterres said, without directly mentioning the US or China.
Washington and Beijing have been at loggerheads over a multitude of issues including trade, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the coronavirus pandemic.
Addressing the UNGA, US President Donald Trump criticized multilateralism as an approach to resolve tensions between nations, taking exception to Guterres’ appeal. Trump emphasized that global leaders should put the interests of their countries first.
”For decades the same tired voices proposed the same failed solutions pursuing global ambitions at the expense of their own people, but only when you take care of your own citizens will you find a true basis for cooperation,” Trump said.
“As president, I have rejected the failed approaches of the past and I am proudly putting America first, just as you should be putting your countries first. That’s okay. That’s what you should be doing,” he added.
Trump launched a scathing attack on China, calling the coronavirus the “China virus” and blamed China for spreading the disease, stating that the country had “unleashed this plague” onto the world.
He accused Beijing of “allowing flights to leave China and infect the world” and of “virtually controlling” the World Health Organization (WHO).
Trump asserted that China and the WHO disseminated false information about the spread of the virus and urged the UN to hold Beijing accountable for the pandemic.
Trump’s address also included an attack on over environment related issues. He lashed out at Beijing over its environmental record, slamming it for producing carbon emissions nearly double than that of the US. Trump accused Beijing of overfishing territorial waters of other countries, dumping millions of tonnes of plastic into oceans and emitting higher levels of toxic mercury into the atmosphere than any other country.
“Those who attack America’s exceptional environmental record while ignoring China’s rampant pollution are not interested in the environment. They only want to punish America and I will not stand for it,” Trump said.
Speaking about geopolitical tensions, Trump hailed his administration’s role in achieving two peace deals in the Middle East recently and stated that the US was fulfilling the role of a “peacemaker” and following a policy of “peace through strength”.
He also called his country’s weapons “advanced”.
“I pray to God we never have to use them,” Trump added, in a seemingly veiled threat to China, though he did not explicitly name it.
Trump’s address was shortly followed by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pre-recorded video statement.
Beijing has “no intention to fight either a cold war or a hot one with any country,” Xi said.
“We will continue to narrow differences and resolve disputes with others through dialogue and negotiation. We will not seek to develop only ourselves or engage in a zero-sum game,” Xi added.
In sharp contrast to Trump, Xi spoke in support of a multilateral approach. He urged countries to pursue a common goal and preserve the international system with the UN at its core.
“We should say no to unilateralism and protectionism,” Xi said, adding that China was committed to pursuing “open and inclusive development” for the benefit of the world economy and upholding the multilateral trading regime “with the WTO as the cornerstone.”
Following Xi’s message, China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jan called Trump’s accusations “baseless.”
Responding to Trump’s attack that China virtually controls the WHO, the WHO Communications Director Gabby Stern tweeted, “@WHO has 194 Member States; no one gov’t controls us.”
“Resist a world order dominated by the US and China”
French President Emmanuel Macron referred to the US-China standoff in his UNGA address, stating that nations should work together amid the coronavirus pandemic and resist a world order dominated by the US and China.
“Today’s world cannot be left to the rivalry between China and the United States, regardless of the weight in the world that these two great powers share, regardless of the history that ties us,” Macron said.
Macron also used his speech to raise the issue of alleged human rights abuses of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region in China and suggested that the UN should organize an international mission to Xinjiang.
“France has requested that an international mission under the aegis of the United Nations go to Xinjiang in order to take into account the concerns that we collectively have on the situation of the Muslim Uighur minority,” Macron said.
Taking a contrary position to Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised the UN, stating that over the decades it had “been ably fulfilling its mission of protecting peace, promoting sustainable development of the peoples and continents and providing assistance in mitigating local crises.”
“This enormous potential and expertise of the UN is relevant and serves as a solid basis for moving ahead,” Putin said.
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