The People’s Republic of China has been a member of the United Nations since 1971. In the forefront of its accession, China, dominated by Mao Zedong’s leadership, was highly isolated from international affairs due to its inner turmoil in the course of miscarried economic reform and the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976). During this period, the country’s attitude towards the UN was to some degree hostile, resulting from military clashes between UN troops and the Chinese military in the Korean War and the occupation of China’s UN seat by the Republic of China in Taiwan. Nevertheless, the PRC continuously sought to obtain membership in the UN. Simultaneously, a growing number of newly independent developing countries put forward an annual resolution in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) from 1950 onwards that asked for transferring China’s seat from Taiwan to the PRC. In 1971, after support for PRC membership had been growing enormously in the 1960s, the necessary two-third majority was finally reached in the 26th General Assembly. Nevertheless, the outcome of this vote was surprising, leading to a mental and material lack of Chinese preparation for UN membership.
Since then, albeit Chinese relations to the world organisation have yet been somewhat ambiguous, the PRC has become a key player in global affairs, thereby cooperating with 150 international and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the fields of economic issues, arms control, human rights and environmental protection. Moreover, China’s UN approach has developed from ’system-transforming’ before 1971 to ‘system-reforming’ in the 1980s to ‘system-maintaining’ in the 1990s, whereat this process has gained momentum since then. Today, this process of mitigation has led to a secure position for the PRC within the United Nations. It is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the only officially recognised Asian nuclear power.
From a Chinese point of view, the UN offers two great advantages: firstly, its structural design provides suitable conditions to moderate unilateral ambitions. In the UNGA, this is guaranteed by the principle of equality (“one country, one vote”) and in the UNSC, even the permanent members, first and foremost the United States, rather represent first among equals. Secondly, as the UN is hierarchical, China – as it is vested with a permanent seat and the privilege of the veto in the UNSC – finds itself in a position at the top of this hierarchy, thereby disposing a high degree of influence. Despite its outstanding position, the country claims to be a representative for all developing and emerging nations that addresses itself to the “democratisation” of international politics, meaning more influence and rights to be heard for developing nations.
Furthermore, the PRC is generally amenable to UN reform initiatives. It thus embraces the role of Asia and other emerging regions, yet it is opposed to a Japanese membership in the UNSC and to an expanding Indian influence. In the context of UN reform, the PRC has published a detailed position paper prior to the 2005 World Summit. In this document, China expressed its will to actively participate in all efforts endeavouring UN reform and proposed concrete structural and procedural changes.
Since the leadership of Hu Jintao, the PRC’s UN policy seems to have become more active and assertive. For example, in order to better and more effectively address the complex tasks in the UN system, the personnel in China’s permanent mission at the UN headquarters in New York had been extended to now nearly 80 persons. Yet, the overall percentage of Chinese employees in the UN Secretariat remains relatively low. Furthermore, Chinese contributions to UN peacekeeping operations (PKOs) have increased significantly.
But how can the PRC’s approach towards the UN be best assessed? Since president Hu Jintao came to power in 2002, a multilateral approach was chosen as a key element in China’s foreign policy. This, too, was emphasised in the UN reform position paper in which the UN is described as “the best venue to practice multilateralism, and an effective platform for collective actions to cope with various threats and challenges”. China’s multilateral diplomacy hereby has global as well as regional characteristics. On the global level, its leverage proves to be quite complicated, as China not only possesses different identities within the UN (i.e. great power status as a veto-holding power in the UNSC, representative of the developing world in the UNGA) but also because its power within the organisation is still relatively weak, even as its capabilities as well as its financial and personnel contributions are growing.
The PRC’s participation in multilateral organisations like the UN was originally driven by a materialist point of view. In this regard, the international environment should become beneficial for China’s economic transition in general as well as for providing it with concrete gains from the international society in order to help it pursuing its modernisation. Yet, the PRC is increasingly being involved in recent years in politically sensitive security and political-issue-oriented matters, such as human rights.