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Is China the Right Country to Call for a Cease-Fire in Gaza?

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Zhang Jun, Ambassador of China to the UN
Ambassador Zhang Jun, China’s top representative to the United Nations, is president of the Security Council in November. Here, he holds a Luban lock toy, demonstrating how it needs all its parts to fit to be whole, a metaphor for the Council, he said. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

China wants to use its monthly rotating presidency in the United Nations Security Council to intensify international calls for a “cease-fire” in the war in Gaza, as Zhang Jun, China’s permanent representative to the UN, said. He spoke to reporters on Nov. 1, detailing his country’s plans to lead the Council in November.

China, he said, was working with its fellow 14 Council members in presenting a draft resolution addressing the enormous humanitarian disaster unfolding in Gaza, as well as to monitor what might happen on the ground. The text was still being negotiated as of Wednesday, with no word on when or whether it will be voted on. The United States secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is scheduled to visit Israel on Friday, so the Council’s action could take a back seat during Blinken’s latest trip to the Mideast. He said on Nov. 2 as he left for his journey that one objective is to increase humanitarian assistance into Gaza.

The 10 elected Council members, deeply frustrated by the body’s inability to approve a text spotlighting the humanitarian drama being wrought by Israel’s deadly bombardment in Gaza in the last several weeks, are leading the newest effort to produce a resolution that will not be vetoed. (The US and Russia have each submitted draft resolutions on the crisis since the Oct. 7 slaughter by Hamas in Israel and its indiscrimatory retaliation, but both attempts have failed.)

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At the media briefing, Zhang said that China would keep working with the UN and regional bodies to push for a cease-fire, adding that only a “two-state solution” can end the overall Israel-Palestine conflict. At the same time, he conceded that China had no influence in the region. The Council is scheduled to hold a meeting on Nov. 28 to focus on the multifaceted issues derailing parts of the Mideast. But more urgent requests for sessions on the war could pop up. The US has been adamant in not using the word “cease-fire” in relation to humanitarian aid in Gaza, although Blinken agreed this week that such “pauses” must “be considered.”

“We will continue to make further efforts to ensure that the Council can play a responsible and meaningful role in calling for a cease-fire, protecting the civilians, preventing further deterioration of the war and further humanitarian catastrophe,” Zhang said.

The war will dominate the Council in November, Zhang said repeatedly. A cease-fire is the first step to ensure the conflict does not spill over to ignite a regional bloodbath, he also noted. (The UN, relying on data from the Gaza Health Ministry, says that approximately 9,000 Palestinians have died in the war so far; fatalities from the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 number 1,400, according to Israeli official sources.)

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China said it would also use its presidency to draw attention to the UN peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon, situated along the Blue Line — which marks the boundary where Israeli troops withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 — to prevent the war from spreading.

The Council’s latest deadlock episode, incited by the Israeli-Hamas war, spilled into the public when Russia proposed a draft resolution to enable humanitarian aid into Gaza. The text failed in a vote on Oct. 16. Another draft text, proposed by Brazil, was rejected two days later, through a US veto. The draft got 12 votes and two abstentions (Britain and Russia). On Oct. 25, the Council voted on two new draft resolutions, one submitted by Russia and the other by the US, also focusing on the humanitarian horrors in Gaza, but they failed too. Council members drew hard lines over certain language in each text, with the US demanding explicitly Israel’s right to self-defense in its version.

Nevertheless, a legally nonbinding resolution calling for an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce” was approved by 121 votes in the General Assembly on Oct. 27. Iraq, changed its vote in favor after the initial count.

Experts told PassBlue that the deadlock on several issues in the Council is unlikely to be broken soon. US and China, for example, view the problems challenging the Council’s role in maintaining global peace and security differently, said Zhiqun Zhu, a professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

Jeremy Chan, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, said it would be hard for the US, China and Russia to overcome their differences to call for “a cancellation of Israel’s evacuation order for northern Gaza” and “assertions of states’ inherent right to self-defense.”

“There could be room for agreement among these three countries, depending on how the conflict evolves, but we’re not close to that yet,” Chan added.

Zhang acknowledged that the impasse in the Council has made it hard for the body to work. “The performance of the mandate of the Council is not as good as what the global community has been expecting,” he said. “I fully understand the difficulties ahead of us. We will spare no effort in exercising our duties and in guiding the Council to take more concrete and more meaningful actions in promoting political settlement.”

As lofty as China’s stated focus for its presidency may be, Arslan Hidayat, a program director at the Campaign for Uyghurs, a nonprofit group that aims to counter the repression of the Uyghur ethnic minority in Xinjiang Province, is wary about the intentions of the Chinese at the UN. He said that China’s Council presidency will not close the divide between the US and China.

“China does not care about the Palestinians at all,” Hidayat said. “It is mainly using this to get back at the United States. Right now, whatever the United States does, China would do the opposite.”

Lily McElwee, a fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the disparity on what Council members want, especially on Gaza, is enormous.

Jeffrey Laurenti, an international affairs analyst and UN expert, said that China’s presidency is irrelevant as to how the ferocious Israeli response to the Hamas slaughter of Oct. 7 will play out.

The Council will also meet on such regular agenda items as the sanctions regime in Yemen and the UN’s peacekeeping and political missions in South Sudan, Sudan and Libya across the month. The Yemen sanctions regime expires on Nov. 16. In 2014, the Council imposed a limited arms embargo and other bans against the Houthi militants rebelling in Yemen. Zhang said the sanctions would be reviewed to decide the next step, yet China opposes such multilateral measures.

In addition this month, the independent report by a Turkish diplomat, Feridun Sinirlioglu, assessing the situation of women and other matters in Afghanistan, is due on Nov. 17 to the Council.

China’s national position on women’s rights has made a big leap recently. Xi Jinping, the country’s leader, called on women to heed a “culture” of childbirth to reverse China’s decreasing population as the economy falters. The decline of women’s equal status is also reflected in the Politburo, the main policy body of the Communist Party, which has had no women members in the last two years.

Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors as their countries assume the Council presidency. This month, we explore China’s controversial treatment of the Uyghur population by interviewing those who now live in the US, in our UNSCripted podcast series, due out soon. The Chinese mission to the UN did not respond to requests for an interview with Zhang.

China’s Ambassador to the UN: Zhang Jun, 63
Since: July 2019
Languages: Mandarin, English
Education: Bachelor’s in law, Jilin University, China; master’s in law, Hull University, Britain

His story, briefly: When Zhang became ambassador to the UN, China was signaling changes in its approach to the world body, becoming more assertive as a permanent member of the Security Council and elsewhere in the UN system. Zhang arrived two months before the annual opening session of the General Assembly, after serving one year as assistant minister of foreign affairs in Beijing. He was more outgoing than his immediate predecessor at the UN, joking during a meeting of the Security Council, when his cellphone rang by mistake, “Maybe I need to change my vote.” (He also arrived eight months before Covid-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, and New York City, the epicenter of the disease, went into full lockdown for several months.)

Zhang, a longtime member of the Communist Party, has been at the forefront of China’s economic diplomacy, constantly referring to his country’s Belt and Road development strategy in his UN speeches. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1984, serving at the country’s mission to the UN from 1990 to 1994. He returned to New York City as China began climbing the global political and economic ladder, while veering from intervening in other countries’ internal affairs, especially on human rights. Yet China’s policy on protecting the sovereignty of all nations has proved to be contradictory in its backing of Russia’s continuing invasion of Ukraine. Born in 1960 in Jilin Province, northeast China, Zhang is married and has a daughter. One of his favorite pastimes, he told PassBlue, is playing tennis.

Country Profile

President of China: Xi Jinping
Minister of Foreign Affairs: Wang Yi
Type of Government: One-party dictatorship
Year China Joined the UN: 1945 (as the Republic of China; in 1971, the People’s Republic of China was recognized by the General Assembly as the legitimate representative of China).
Years in the Security Council: A permanent member (along with Britain, France, Russia and the US)
Population: 1,425,671,352 (2023); 1,450,690,148 (2022)
Per capita CO2 emission figures for 2020 (in tons): 8.2; by comparison, US: 13.7

This article was updated on Nov. 3 to reflect the latest number of Palestinian casualties in the Gaza war. Due to an editing error, the date of when Israeli troops withdrew from southern Lebanon was misstated: it was in 2000, not 1978. 


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on China's Council presidency?

Damilola Banjo is a reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.

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Is China the Right Country to Call for a Cease-Fire in Gaza?
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Ted Folke
7 months ago

Why not China? The US State department has already demonstrated its total and uncritical support for Israel in this conflict, and thus abandoned whatever leverage it might have had to serve as an arbitrator. Your article shows a lack of objectivity.

Carl Freeman
Carl Freeman
7 months ago

This piece has a curious title. Surely a country that managed to bring about a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia (overlooked in the article) is eminently qualified to call for a ceasefire.

Suzanne Loughlin
Suzanne Loughlin
7 months ago

Your language is interesting for supposedly independent coverage of UN issues

Where Palestinians are said to ‘slaughter’ Israeli’s, replicating by implication Israeli claims that Palestinians are less-than-human, Israel is said to be ‘retaliating with deadly bombardment’ thereby presenting the latter as reasonable in its actions. Moreover, you remain silent about Israel’s publicly stated determination to commit genocide. It does not deny its plans but celebrates them and soldiers look on while settlers force Palestinians off their land and from their homes in the West Bank

Like the mainstream media, you are perpetuating government propaganda, not offering useful independent coverage of the history of the forcible displacement of Palestinians since 1948.

Shameful

Suzanne

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