High Stakes

China and the United States sound off at Disunited Nations

UN backdrop simply papered over geopolitical cracks that divide Washington and Beijing

Different visions. Different priorities.

In keynote speeches to the United Nations General Assembly, the two most powerful politicians in the world appeared to agree to disagree.

US President Joe Biden talked about a “new era of relentless diplomacy” and “renewing and defending democracy.”

His Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping called for an end to “zero-sum games,” a comment directly aimed at the United States.

Amid turbulent Sino-American relations, the UN backdrop simply papered over the geopolitical cracks that divide Washington and Beijing. 

“[China] seeks less to impose a Marxist-Leninist ideology on foreign societies than to promote its own authoritarian system,” Charles Edel and David Shullman, the director of the Atlantic Council’s China Global Hub, wrote in the Foreign Affairs magazine.

“The [ruling] CCP [Chinese Communist Party] doesn’t seek ideological conformity but rather power, security, and global influence for China and for itself,” they said.

Great Divide:

We must strengthen solidarity and promote mutual respect and win-win cooperation in conducting international relations.

President Xi Jinping | United Nations

What Comrade Xi said: “Democracy is not a special right reserved to an individual country, but a right for the people of all countries to enjoy.”

Peace and Freedom: “We need to advocate peace, development, democracy and freedom, which are the common values of humanity, and reject the practice of forming small circles or zero-sum games,” Xi said in a reference to the US.

Delve deeper: There is nothing democratic in Xi’s China or the unelected ruling Communist Party. His political doctrine is now at the heart of society while his reach extends from education to the economy.

Obnoxious oligarchy: “In the space of three short years, the totalitarian tendencies of the Chinese Party-state have become more evident. What was already an obnoxious oligarchy has now been replaced by a Chinese version of the Führerprinzip, along with a brutal form of purge politics based on the Leninist-Maoist model,” Xu Zhangrun, the celebrated Chinese academic and former professor at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University, wrote in a commentary for ChinaFile.

While no democracy is perfect, including the United States, [it] remains the best tool we have to unleash our full human potential.

President Joe Biden | United Nations

What President Biden said: “The future will belong to those who give their people the ability to breathe free, not those who seek to suffocate their people with an iron hand.”

Age of democracy: “The authoritarianism of the world may seek to proclaim the end of the age of democracy, but they’re wrong,” Biden said in reference to China.

Delve deeper: Yet not all were convinced. The Associated Press pointed out that Biden had sought to play down concerns about China. During his UN address, he did not utter the five-letter word once in a 34-minute speech. Still, there was no disguising the “authoritarianism” remark and the intended target.

Choppy seas: “The increasing level of global anxiety about China is the tide that lifts all boats here,” Greg Poling, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told the Reuters news agency.

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