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United Nations: Warning of a potential new Cold War, the head of the United Nations (UN) implored China and the United States of America to repair their “completely dysfunctional” relationship before problems between the two large and deeply influential countries spill over further onto the rest of the planet.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke to the Associated Press this weekend, ahead of this week’s annual United Nations gathering of world leaders. A convening blemished by COVID-19, climate concerns and contentiousness across the planet.
Guterres said the world’s two major economic powers should be cooperating on climate and negotiating more robustly on trade and technology given their persisting political fissures about human rights, economics, online security and sovereignty in the South China Sea.
“Unfortunately, today we only have confrontation,” Guterres said Saturday in the AP interview.
“We need to re-establish a functional relationship between the two powers,” he said, calling that “essential to address the problems of vaccination, the problems of climate change and many other global challenges that cannot be solved without constructive relations within the international community and mainly among the superpowers.”
He reiterated that warning, adding that two rival geopolitical and military strategies would pose dangers and divide the world. Thus, he said, the foundering relationship must be repaired and soon.
“We need to avoid at all cost a Cold War that would be different from the past one, and probably more dangerous and more difficult to manage,” Guterres said.
The UN chief said a new Cold War could be more perilous because the Soviet-US antipathy created clear rules, and both sides were conscious of the risk of nuclear destruction. That produced back channels and forums “to guarantee that things would not get out of control,” he said.
“Now, today, everything is more fluid, and even the experience that existed in the past to manage crisis is no longer there,” Guterres said.
He said the US-Britain deal to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines so it could operate undetected in Asia “is just one small piece of a more complex puzzle … this completely dysfunctional relationship between China and the US.”
“Not looking to pursue a new Cold War”
The White House gently pushed back against Gutterres’ critique on Monday. Press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration disagrees with Gutterres’ characterisation of the US-China relationship.
“Our relationship with China is one not of conflict but of competition,” Psaki said. She added: “He is not looking to pursue a new Cold War with any country in the world.”
“Tomorrow, the president will deliver a speech at the UN General Assembly. He will make absolutely clear that he is not looking to pursue in future a new Cold War with any country. We will continue to pursue our interests. We will continue to lift global priorities, but that is not the objective or the policy of the United States,” she said.
A senior official of the Joe Biden administration echoed a similar view at a conference call with reporters.
“Biden will communicate tomorrow that he does not believe in the notion of a new Cold War with the world divided into blocs. He believes in a vigorous, intensive, principled competition that does not tip over into conflict,” said the official.
“If you look at the readout of his call with President Xi Jinping several days ago, you will see exactly that message reflected… It this message he will convey from the rostrum of the UN General Assembly tomorrow,” he said.
The official said it is the administration’s firm commitment to stand up for American interests and its allies, but to do so in a way that is responsible and that does not drive towards conflict, either intended or unintended, he said.
“There are also areas where we can work together with China and should work together with China. That includes on climate and in ensuring that we do end this pandemic as rapidly as possible,” said the official.
Other issues addressed
In the wide-ranging AP interview, Guterres also addressed three major issues that world leaders will be confronting this week: the worsening climate crisis, the still-raging pandemic and Afghanistan’s uncertain future under its new Taliban rulers. They took power on August 15 without a fight from the government’s US-trained army as American forces were in the final stage of withdrawing from the country after 20 years.
What role will the UN have in the new Afghanistan? Guterres called it “a fantasy” to believe that UN involvement “will be able all of a sudden to produce an inclusive government, to guarantee that all human rights are respected, to guarantee that no terrorists will ever exist in Afghanistan, that drug trafficking will stop.”
After all, he said, the US and many other countries had thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan and spent trillions of dollars and weren’t able to solve the country’s problems and, some say, made them worse.
Though the UN has “limited capacity and limited leverage,” he said, it is playing a key role in leading efforts to provide humanitarian aid to Afghans. The UN is also drawing the Taliban’s attention to the importance of an inclusive government that respects human rights, especially for women and girls, he said.
“There is clearly a fight for power within different groups in the Taliban leadership. The situation is not yet clarified,” he said, calling it one more reason why the international community should engage with the Taliban.
Guterres said Biden’s commitment to global action on climate, including rejoining the 2015 Paris climate agreement that Trump withdrew from, is “probably the most important of them all.”
He said there is “a completely different environment in the relationship” between the UN and the US under Biden. But, Guterres said, “I did everything and I’m proud of it in order to make sure that we would keep a functional relationship with the US in the past administration.”
Guterres also lamented the failure of countries to work together to tackle global warming and ensure that people in every country are vaccinated.
Of the past year of COVID-19 struggles, he said: “We were not able to make any real progress in relation to effective coordination of global efforts.”
Guterres called it “totally unacceptable” that 80% of the population in his native Portugal has been vaccinated while in many African countries, less than 2% of the population is vaccinated.
“It’s completely stupid from the point of view of defeating the virus, but if the virus goes on spreading like wildfire in the global south, there will be more mutations,” he said.
He again urged the world’s 20 major economic powers in the G20, who failed to take united action against COVID-19 in early 2020, to create the conditions for a global vaccination plan. “I think this is possible,” Guterres said. “It depends on political will.”
(With inputs from PTI)