At a time when diplomatic activities are being restricted due to the spread of an infectious disease, it is crucial to make attempts to build international cooperation, rather than having individual nations focus on their own interests. The leaders of the United States and China should wake up to their responsibility in this regard.
The General Debate of the U.N. General Assembly has started at United Nations headquarters in New York. This year’s event is being held in an unprecedented format, as leaders’ speeches prerecorded on video are played at the venue. This is to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
This is a milestone year for the United Nations as it marks the 75th anniversary of its founding. Ordinarily, heads of state from member nations would stand on the podium to deliver their address and hold talks with other leaders. It is unfortunate that a chance for summit diplomacy has been lost.
U.S. President Donald Trump devoted a large chunk of his speech to criticizing China. Trump said that soon after the coronavirus emerged, China placed restrictions on domestic travel but allowed flights overseas, which enabled the virus to spread around the world. “The United Nations must hold China accountable for their actions,” Trump said.
It is true that there were problems with China’s handling of the outbreak, such as delays in disclosing information. The response by the World Health Organization, which has been accused of being too deferential to Beijing, also needs to be reviewed and have improvements made.
Even so, the most pressing issues right now are getting nations working together to defeat this infectious disease and reviving the global economy. A collaborative framework will be essential for developing a vaccine and therapeutic medicines, and ensuring they reach people around the world. Criticizing China will, by itself, not help solve these problems.
Leaders should of course put top priority on the interests of their own country. However, developing measures to combat infectious diseases, addressing climate change and crafting trade rules are among the issues where progress cannot be made through the efforts of a single nation. Trump should be aware that an approach that focuses only on his own country will ultimately hurt U.S. national interests.
Chinese President Xi Jinping fired back at the United States in his U.N. speech, saying, “Any attempt of politicizing the issue [of the responses to the pandemic] … must be rejected.” From the standpoint of prioritizing multilateralism, Xi also said China “will firmly uphold the … international system.”
Xi stressed an approach that starkly contrasts with Trump’s “America First” policy. He probably wanted to leave the impression that China is replacing the United States in leading international cooperation. However, his words cannot be taken at face value.
China is increasing its military footprint in the South China Sea and ratcheting up restraints that negate the “one country, two systems” model in Hong Kong. All these actions ignore international law and international agreements. If Beijing claims to stand for multilateralism, it should respect the rule of law and listen to the criticism it receives.
It is impossible not to be concerned about this current situation in which international politics and the global economy are at the mercy of U.S.-China antagonism. Both Washington and Beijing must stop throwing criticism at each other and instead take steps to help resolve the situation.
— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Sept. 24, 2020.