Was China a Less-Than-Ideal President to Lead the UN Security Council in a Crisis?

Ambassador Zhang Jun of China
Ambassador Zhang Jun of China, presiding over the UN Security Council, March 12, 2020, days before the Council began meeting strictly online because of the coronavirus pandemic. Diplomats have expressed concern and frustration over the sudden lack of transparency by the Council in migrating its meetings to virtual formats. MANUEL ELIAS/UN PHOTO

In early March, China appeared to be seeing a light at the end of the tunnel back home in containing the coronavirus spread, while in New York City, the country was preparing to take over the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council. Ambassador Zhang Jun of China told the media that one of his country’s goals was transparency.

A few days later, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, and soon the Security Council had to meet online, pressing the slow-moving and secretive body to figure out new ways of working.

As a permanent member of the Council, China’s presidency was to have been a relatively routine exercise for Beijing, and specialists on the UN were expecting a “highly professional” leadership.

Throughout the arduous process of the Council beginning to meet by videoconference in mid-March, the 15 members nevertheless ended up agreeing unanimously on new methods of working. But that meant leaving the rest of the 193 UN member states in the dark, as the Council’s virtual meetings were not live-streamed.

Because the physical plant of the UN headquarters was closed to most personnel on March 16, the Council could not meet in its chamber safely while keeping a social distance, so China’s goal of transparency fell rapidly by the wayside.

By many perspectives, China was not an ideal president to respond to the crisis.

“It has been conservative and somewhat passive in its approach,” a diplomat told PassBlue, “resulting in too much time and struggle with working methods in the [Security Council], rather than the [Council] really taking a lead response on the connection between Covid-19 and international peace and security.”

Outside the UN, China was also facing global criticism for the opaque way it dealt with the coronavirus outbreak at home, while Beijing was kicking out American reporters in an escalating battle with the Trump administration. Back in New York, China’s willingness to be open in the Council was suddenly up for debate.

Master of Science in Humanitarian Studies at Fordham University

“I think transparency and inclusion of other members were not on the top of the list of this particular presidency,” Christian Wenaweser, Liechtenstein’s ambassador to the UN, said. “Rather unsurprising, given the difficulties in adjusting to the situation.”

The month of March would have been challenging for any country sitting in the driver’s seat, some diplomats and UN experts say. Agreeing on entirely new working methods was a bigger problem than any Council presidency has faced in recent history. Moreover, the permanent-five members, Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, had different views on how the Council should operate in the crisis.

“It was not easy to reach consensus on the way forward, mainly because of the rigid position of Russia,” one Council member said. “Eventually, we reached a satisfactory compromise that allows the Council to be operational.”

Russia stalled most of the body’s efforts to move online, whether out of fear of going into new territory legally vis-à-vis the UN Charter or fear of fundamental change, say some diplomats interviewed for this article. Russia was the only member that kept insisting that the Council could meet physically in the UN’s headquarters while maintaining a safe distance from one another. On that issue, China “played neutral,” a diplomat said.

By early April, the Russian delegation appeared to have accepted that the Council had to meet virtually, though it is still insisting on calling the meetings, held by videoconference, “informal,” or closed. Some meetings, however, are now being live-streamed, or “open,” but decisions on the Council’s work in April are being assessed daily.

Regardless of Russia’s own resistance, many diplomats wonder if China used the crisis in March to keep the Council’s work private and, as usual, was comfortably hiding behind Russia’s position. Globally, China quickly went from crisis management at home to leading the global fight against the virus, donating and supplying many countries, including the US, with medical equipment and even medical workers.

“I think the key word is ‘control,’ ” Stephen Schlesinger, a UN expert and former director of the World Policy Institute at the New School, told PassBlue. “With President Xi [Jinping], it’s been control, control, control ever since he came into power — everything he does is in direct relation with his desire to control the narrative.”

After the UN Secretariat announced on March 13 that nonessential employees at New York headquarters were being ordered to work from home, starting on March 16, the Council went completely silent for about a week. The next week, it held its first official meeting by videoconference. Details about what was happening inside the Council were scarce, however, and China conveyed nothing at first about the Council’s work to reporters or to the wider public.

Master of Science in Humanitarian Studies at Fordham University

“For the [European Union], it is essential that the [Security Council] seeks to be transparent and responsive to the broader UN membership,” a senior European diplomat told PassBlue in an email. “And [it] should be inclusive in its proceedings as called for by the EU and other Member States, and ensure that it can effectively respond to current and emerging security crises.”

Another diplomat noted: “The Security Council had to strike a balance between understanding the unprecedented nature of the situation, and the fact that there are some standards of transparency, interest membership, and responsibility to deliver principles as well.”

The balance tilted toward addressing the situation among Council members, many diplomats told PassBlue. By the end of March, the Council agreed on voting methods, through letters sent by email to the Council president, in a 24-hour window. The Council was able to vote on four resolutions in one day: on the UN mission in Somalia, the UN-African Union mission in Darfur, the safety and security of peacekeepers and North Korea and nonproliferation.

“It’s mainly due to this crisis: if you don’t have a voting procedure in place, you probably give that priority over transparency,” Wenaweser of Liechtenstein said.

Courtney Fung is an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong and an associate fellow at Chatham House, a global think tank. In an email, she wrote: “China is already criticised for being slow and lacking transparency in addressing its domestic outbreak. China gains little from reinforcing such criticisms while leading [the Security Council].”

Once the Council overcame the voting hurdle, other issues remained. This is when the Swiss mission to the UN, leading the informal group on Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT), stepped in. The group consists of a range of 25 small and midsized countries that include Ireland, Austria, Saudi Arabia, Costa Rica, Ghana and Papua New Guinea. The group’s intervention was not only about China but also about the Security Council as a whole.

On March 30, the ACT group, led by the Swiss, sent a letter to the Security Council president, Ambassador Zhang, asking for change in how the Council was operating amid the “new normal” in the pandemic. The letter asked for videoteleconference (VCT) meetings, for statements made by the Council to be sent to all member states after every meeting and for press elements — summaries of Council meetings — to be disseminated more widely.

When the UN headquarters physically closed in mid-March, the group had waited a few days to send the letter, as it wanted to give the Council time to reorganize itself. Yet many transparency problems remained after the voting system was established, so on March 30, the group felt it was time to act.

Master of Science in Humanitarian Studies at Fordham University

“It [was] important in that phase to send a signal that actually the discussions among the 15 members do matter for the whole membership,” Jurg Lauber, the permanent representative of Switzerland and coordinator of the ACT group, told PassBlue. “It is not only about VTC working, but about countries that are looking for reassurance that the Council is continuing its work during the crisis.”

Rodrigo Alberto Carazo Zeledón, the Costa Rican ambassador to the UN and a member of the ACT group, noted in an email about the pandemic: “The [Council] just showed that it was not ready for such events, despite many signals in the months before.”

While China blamed technical “limitations” for not enabling Council meetings to be live-streamed, a spokesperson for UN Secretary-General António Guterres told PassBlue during a media briefing in March that live webcasting was possible.

A stark change of approach toward transparency is a major goal of the Dominican Republic, as it has assumed the presidency of the Council in April. The country promises many open meetings, available to watch live on the UN’s WebTV site. The Council held its first live-streamed videoconference meeting on April 7, focusing on the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali.

“The important thing is that the whole world knows the Security Council is engaged, and it is completely transparent,” José Singer Weisinger, the special envoy for the Dominican Republic, told PassBlue. His metaphor for the Council’s operations in April is “smooth sailing,” even in “hurricane” conditions, he added recently.

Still, the Council’s agenda will be adopted on a day-to-day basis, so it’s uncertain if the Dominican Republic’s goals will be fully realized. For example, the Council is finally planning to meet on the coronavirus pandemic on April 9 but in a closed session. Guterres is expected to brief the Council, but his spokesperson did not commit to making Guterres’s remarks public.

In March, nothing materialized from the Council to address the pandemic and its threat to global peace and security, although efforts on many fronts were made, including a presidential statement as well as a draft resolution submitted by France. The resolution remains blocked because the US is still insisting that the origin of the coronavirus, Wuhan, China, be included. A separate draft resolution, led by Tunisia, has not been circulated to the five permanent members.

“China has had some success in driving the story through its aid to affected nations but was still not able to pass a resolution in the Security Council due to US opposition,” Schlesinger said. “That would have placed a candle on top of the cake in media terms, showing that the world was coalescing behind China’s initiative.”

Master of Science in Humanitarian Studies at Fordham University

Nevertheless, Zhang summed up China’s month as president positively, saying in a VTC meeting to the Council: “For the United Nations Security Council, March [was] indeed a march: a march against strong headwind, a march in uncharted territories, a march without updated navigation. I’m glad we got there. Unity and multilateralism make things happen!”

He even praised his own work, adding, “China did everything possible to maintain transparency and openness of information.”

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Stéphanie Fillion

Stéphanie Fillion

Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master's degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.

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