China & USA: Solidarity at the 76th UNGA

NEW YORK, USA - Sep 20, 2016: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the opening of the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York

This year the 76th United Nations General Assembly took place, commencing on the 21st of September. The assembly was presided over by Abdulla Shahid, with António Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN, hitting off the General Assembly mentioning the need for solidarity among nations in addressing COVID-19, climate change and conflict resolution.

It seemed that both the Secretary-General and the President of the General Assembly reinforced the importance of multilateralism before and after the completion of the Assembly. The references to solidarity, however, are of importance, especially in the everlasting realist/liberal debates regarding the nature and explanation of international relations, which provide little focus and analysis of solidarity in this arena, a perspective realists do not embrace at all.

And so, when analyzing the speeches at the General Assembly, what did major global powers have to say concerning solidarity? What were their words, their thoughts, on the current outlook of international relations? The speeches delivered by both Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping mentioned, in different degrees, solidarity. How was this principle voiced? What does it mean?

Both speakers emphasized collective action, an idea of interdependence and concerns over major global issues, such as the ongoing COVID-19 crisis as well as climate change. Regarding the pandemic, references to support towards vaccine distribution were heard: the US with large sum donations towards the COVAX WHO program, including 500 million additional doses and vaccines arriving in over 100 countries, but more importantly, as in Biden’s words “with no strings attached”. Xi Jinping, on the other hand, specifically mentioned solidarity several times in his speech: “We must strengthen solidarity and promote mutual respect and win-win cooperation in conducting International Relations”. Similarly to Biden, in relation to COVID-19 the President of the People’s Republic of China committed to provide two billion doses of vaccines to the world by the end of the year, in addition to 100 million US dollars to COVAX.

Let us pause here for a moment to reflect on what the words from both leaders mean in relation to solidarity.

Solidarity has been described as a form of interaction and intergroup relations with essential characteristics of cooperation in order to reach common goals and a sense of unity and bonding. Biden’s “No strings attached” seems to reflect something beyond this definition: a possible lack of interest for and expectation of reciprocity, which tends to approach definitions of altruism. These are, of course, words part of the discourse and our perspectives of the meaning of discourse vary. Some merely see words in a speech others see evidence of values and action. In this case, regardless of Biden’s and Jinping’s pledge seeming honorable and even altruistic, it comes in the aftermath of the certainty of significant vaccine distribution in their own nations, not a distributive gesture in continuum with dissemination efforts at home. In fact, the global vaccine rollout statistics have shown that Africa remains the continent with the lowest number of administered vaccines, at around 2%, in comparison with high and middle-income countries, most of which are above 50%.

Regarding climate change, the Chinese president committed to supporting developing countries in their pursuit of green energies and the promise of ceasing to build new coal-fired power projects abroad. This is an important step considering that China is the world’s leader in greenhouse gases emissions in 2019, surpassing the USA since the beginning of the 21st century, while the latter still has the highest per capita emissions in the world. The US leader, on the other hand, remembered the audience that under his Presidency the US has already re-joined the Paris Climate Agreement and pledged to reduce emissions from 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. At the same time, the President announced financial support to developing countries in order to tackle climate change (here, let us remember however that most contributors to climate change are developed countries, while the Global South is much more affected by the effects of climate change than the Global North).

Table 1. Greenhouse Gas Emissions for Major Economies, 1990–2030. Source: Center for Climate and Energy Solutions


Table 2. Per Capita Greenhouse Gas Emissions, 2018. Source: Center for Climate and Energy Solutions

Are these discourses reflective of solidarity stances and values by their spokespersons, or power displays as to who is the best and most generous nation? How can we truly know? Understanding motivations in world leaders has been a difficult task for many commentators and researchers – due to the lack of proximity to the subject of analysis and how to retrieve motivational evidence empirically. In these cases, do we rely on the old expression “Actions speak louder than words” and reject discourse? If so, what actions are enough to prove solidarity? If we take on a more realist perspective, considering aid to foreign and less developed countries as a power display, if discourse effectively translates to more significant action by the end of the year, or eventually next year when conditions might be “riper” for vaccine distribution, for example, does this eliminate the possibility of solidarity in international relations both in the form of intent as well as effective action?

The discrepancy among contributions to climate change from the Global South and the Global North, as well as vaccine distribution, shows a clear disparity and inequality between both groups. However, adopting a strict perspective where cooperation and solidarity cannot happen in international relations also does not help explain the contributions made from different countries, including others besides the USA and China, to address these issues. The degree of support and of solidarity through action, of course, might still be far beyond that which we would consider just, however it does show, at least, that the Global North and high-income countries cannot be perceived as positive and respectable leaders without these pledges and efforts towards solidarity. In the meantime, we will keep track of these promises and at the most urgent level, we call for much faster vaccine distribution efforts.

Ana Guimarães is a Politics of Conflict, Rights and Justice MSc candidate and Research Associate at the Center on Conflict, Rights and Justice, where she co- founded a policy briefs initiative. You can also find some of her pieces on her blog Peace by Piece.

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