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Xi goes global as Biden pushes old alliances at the UN

“Recent developments in the global situation show once again that military intervention from the outside and so-called democratic transformation entails nothing but harm,” he said, referring to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“We need to […] reject the practice of forming small circles or zero-sum games. One country’s success does not have to mean another country’s failure, and the world is big enough to accommodate common development and progress of all countries.”

The phrase “through development” is a favourite of Xi’s. It is a handy shorthand for sacrificing personal freedoms for greater collective and individual economic advancement. In Xi’s China, the Uighurs in Xinjiang have human rights because they have jobs, not because they can practise their religion freely or criticise the government.

“We should safeguard and improve people’s livelihoods and protect and promote human rights through development, and make sure that development is for the people and by the people, and that its fruits are shared among the people,” he said.

Xi’s distillation jars with the West but finds friends in the developing world, where employment and security are life and death concerns. These countries have been largely snubbed by Biden’s blocs. They only have a multilateral voice at the UN. And they have the most to gain from China becoming the largest economy in the world by 2030.

More than 40 countries at the UN backed China’s policies in Xinjiang in 2019; 53 supported its crackdown on Hong Kong in 2020.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen on a video screen at the UN on Wednesday.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen on a video screen at the UN on Wednesday. Credit:AP

It is these swing states that will give China its multilateral clout, even if they are dismissed in the West, as competition between the US and China intensifies over the coming decade.

That competition now not only spans economic and security matters but also climate policy.

The UN speeches framed each superpower’s commitments as a win for the global public good, but both are targeting green financing for developing countries. They are not only doing it for altruistic purposes.

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China announced it would phase out building coal-fired power plants overseas, replacing them with low-carbon energy. Biden said the US would mobilise $140 billion to support climate action in developing nations.

This is the best kind of competition between the superpowers, driving investment to where it is needed. If they match their deeds to their rhetoric, the optimistic view is it could cool tensions elsewhere.

“The United States is ready to work with any nation that steps up and pursues peaceful resolution to shared challenges, even if we have intense disagreements in other areas — because we’ll all suffer the consequences of our failure if we do not come together,” said Biden.

“Differences and problems among countries, hardly avoidable, need to be handled through dialogue and cooperation on the basis of equality and mutual respect,” said Xi.

It’s all very civil – dovish even – for the leaders of two countries that are now effectively in a diplomatic and arms race that will define the middle of the 21st century.

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