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UN General Assembly: Guterres warns against 'new Cold War'

September 22, 2020

US President Donald Trump appeared not to heed the UN secretary-general's warning, bashing China over the coronavirus pandemic. Chinese President Xi Jinping said his country wasn't planning on entering a second Cold War.

A combination picture of Trump and Xi speaking at the UN
Image: UNTV/AP/picture alliance

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Tuesday urged the world to prevent a Cold War and halt conflicts so it can focus on the coronavirus pandemic. He made the comments as he opened the almost entirely virtual UN General Assembly general debate, marking the organization's 75th anniversary.

"We must do everything to avoid a new Cold War," Guterres said.

"We are moving in a very dangerous direction. Our world cannot afford a future where the two largest economies split the globe in a great fracture — each with its own trade and financial rules and internet and artificial intelligence capacities," he said, without explicitly mentioning the US and China.

Tensions have been soaring between the world's two largest economies, with the nations clashing over technology, trade and the pandemic, which Trump blames China for.

US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping both addressed the debate on Tuesday. Trump used his speech to attack China for the global pandemic and for China's record on the environment.

Xi said China was not intending on entering a Cold War.

Read more: Opinion: China is looking to challenge the US

trump addresses the UN in a pre-recorded video
Image: UNTV/AP/picture-alliance

US: Trump attacks China over COVID-19

Trump opened his speech with a fierce verbal criticism of China. Calling the coronavirus the "China virus," he said the country had "unleashed this plague" onto the world.

"In the earliest days of the virus, China locked down travel domestically while allowing flights to leave China and infect the world," Trump said. He accused Beijing and the World Health Organization (WHO) of spreading false information on how the virus was spread. 

Trump also claimed the WHO was "virtually controlled by China."

Fact-checking Trump's UN speech

The US president also attacked Beijing over its environmental record, accusing it of overfishing, dumping plastic into oceans, and emitting more toxic mercury than any country.

"Those who attack America's exceptional environmental record while ignoring China's rampant pollution are not interested in the environment. They only want to punish America —  and I will not stand for it," said Trump.

He said the US was pursuing a policy of "peace through strength," and praised his country's weapons as "advanced." 

"I pray to god we never have to use them," added Trump.

Xi Jinping delivers a video message
Image: UNTV/AP/dpa/picture alliance

China: 'No intention' of fighting hot or cold war

Beijing has "no intention to fight either a cold war or a hot one with any country," Xi told the United Nations General Assembly in a pre-recorded video statement that was screened shortly after Trump's.

"We will continue to narrow differences and resolve disputes with others through dialogue and negotiation. We will not seek to develop only ourselves or engage in a zero sum game," Xi said.

Xi also spoke in favor of multilateralism —  where multiple countries pursue a common goal —  and preserving the international system with the UN at its core. "Burying one's head in the sand like an ostrich in the face of economic globalization or trying to fight it with Don Quixote's lance goes against the trend of history," he said. "The world will never return to isolation, and no one can sever the ties between countries."

France: Macron urges UN mission to China's Xinjiang

French President Emmanuel Macron later used his speech to the UN General Assembly to call out China on human rights issues. He urged the UN to embark on an international mission to visit the Xinjiang region due to concerns over the Muslim Uighur minority.

UN experts and activists say at least a million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims are held in detention camps in Xinjiang. China describes them as re-education training centers.

"Fundamental rights are not a Western idea that one could oppose as an interference ... these are the principles of our organization, enshrined in texts that the member states of the United Nations have freely consented to sign and to respect."

"This is the reason why ... France has requested that an international mission under the aegis of the United Nations go to Xinjiang in order to take into account the concerns that we collectively have on the situation of the Muslim Uighur minority," he said.

Read more: China's systematic tracking, arrests of Uighurs exposed in new Xinjiang leak

Where does Germany stand on China?

China is Germany's biggest trade partner with a trade volume between Germany and China hitting €206 billion ($233 billion) in 2019. Berlin has long adhered to the principle of "change through trade," hoping that increased business ties may lead to more democratic structures in China.

Economy and Energy Minister Peter Altmaier said in June that Germany would not sever ties after China introduced its controversial Hong Kong security bill.

However, Germany has come under increasing pressure to speak out about human rights abuses in the country.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas criticized China over the Hong Kong security bill and the human rights abuses of the Uighur minority in the Xinjiang region in northwest China, sparking Chinese backlash.

During Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's visit to Berlin in early September, Germany's government published its "Indo-Pacific Guidelines," stating the Cabinet's official intent to diversify relationships in Asia "with those countries that share our democratic and liberal values."

 Germany wants to position itself more broadly, establish free trade deals and reduce its considerable economic dependence on China.

China and the US 'on a collision path'

"It is the kind of message that he [Trump] has put across many times in campaign rallies in the US to his supporters. It is one thing to do that in a rally surrounded by thousands of adoring supporters, it is quite another thing to do it in an international forum like this, to essentially throw it in Xi Jinping's face," commented DW's Chief International Editor Richard Walker.

Walker added that, despite the fierce tone of Trump's speech, the US president had raised questions being asked about China during the early stages of the pandemic.

Trump's speech should be seen within the context of an upcoming US presidential election, set for November 3, said Walker. "Donald Trump needs to get his message across which is blaming China for what critics would say essentially problems related to the US' own handling of this virus."

"The bigger picture is that China and the US are on a collision path," Walker concluded.

Read more: Germany's reluctance to speak out against China

What is happening at the UN debate?

From September 22 to 26, more than 100 world leaders as well as diplomats and advocates will deliver speeches. The event is taking place virtually, for the most part, because of the global coronavirus pandemic that has hampered global travel.

The leaders are addressing the theme: "The future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism — confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateral action."

Read more: Africa must be a 'partner' on the global stage, UN deputy chief says