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Cooperation between China and US crucial for sustainability and prosperity

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Photo: UN / Laura Jarriel
Mary Robinson addresses the delegates at the Hong Kong Forum on US-China Relations, emphasising the importance of cooperation between China and the United States to develop robust frameworks for 21st century governance.

Mary Robinson delivered this speech at the Hong Kong Forum on US-China Relations on 19 January 2022.


Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honour to speak to you today, at this time when global dialogue and collaboration have never been more important – and a good relationship between China and the US is most important of all.

We are nearly two years into a devastating global pandemic that has exposed not just failures of global pandemic preparedness but wider weaknesses in the architecture of the rules-based international order. 

The current Sino-US tensions have undoubtedly made it harder to coordinate a sustainable recovery from COVID-19 and address the wider existential challenges faced by all of us. 

Open dialogue is essential to rebuilding trust between China and the United States, and to tackling the existential threats facing humanity, from pandemics and the climate crisis to the ever-present risk of nuclear conflict.

I have always valued open and frank dialogue with senior leaders in China, including on the visits I made as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and most recently with President Xi on a visit to Beijing in 2019 as Chair of The Elders – just as I have on my many visits to the United States, including the two board meetings the Elders held in Washington DC last year.

As the world’s most powerful nations China and the United States should be leading the way to develop long-term solutions to common threats. Yet too often in recent years they have been locked in a dynamic of mutual suspicion and confrontation.

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Organisation in March 2021, 89% of American adults consider China to be a competitor or enemy rather than a partner. 

Similar surveys of Chinese opinion undertaken by the China Data Lab at the University of California San Diego have also shown a rise in negative Chinese perceptions of the United States, with favourability on a scale of 1 to 10 dropping to 4.77 in May 2020 from 5.77 in June 2019. 

Competition between nations can of course be helpful and dynamic, but not if it curdles into nationalist aggression and obscures common interests. More efforts need to be made by both countries to build relationships among young people, women, cultural groups and others. As an example, the 2021 Her Village International Forum links women leaders, and I spoke there at the invitation of YANG Lan, Chairperson of Sun Media Group.

The pandemic has reminded us of the fundamental interconnectedness of our world, and the extent to which we are all vulnerable to the health risks from changes to biodiversity and climate, and breaches to planetary boundaries.

These challenges do not fit into the “zero-sum game” paradigm that has traditionally defined foreign policy, but require sustained, intense cooperation.

In the face of such profound threats, it is crucial above all to uphold the right to freedom of debate and inquiry, and to have challenging conversations, both in public and in private. It is only through these sometimes difficult exchanges that we can arrive at policies that work and endure. 

This was the case in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the United Nations was founded and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was agreed, forming the bedrock of the modern-day multilateral system. 

The opening line of Article 1 of the Declaration is as true today as it was in 1948: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” 

There is much I could say about how both China and the United States understand and implement their human rights obligations as set out under international law, but this is not the priority for my remarks today. 

Rather, I want to emphasise the particular responsibility that these two great nations have to work together to develop a new framework to tackle the existential threats of the 21st century.

Last November, I attended the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow where I was pleased to see the bilateral US-China declaration made by envoys John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua. 

The joint declaration at COP26 to “enhance climate action in the 2020s” was a good start, but much more needs to be done on both sides to translate summit words into concrete actions. 

For China, this means a more ambitious near-term target in time for COP27 in Egypt this November. To speak frankly, peaking emissions by 2030 is too late. According to Climate Action Tracker, China’s current climate plan is consistent with a world where temperatures are 3°C to 4°C higher than pre-industrial levels, with terrifying implications for life on earth as we know it. 

An earlier peaking date is essential to align with the Paris goals, and with President Xi’s 2060 net zero target. China has a crucial opportunity here to be a dynamic leader on climate, and I hope its leaders seize the moment, building on its already impressive track record in renewable energy production. 

The US must also overcome its political deadlock to deliver on pledges already made, including concrete steps to reduce its emissions and accepting its fair share of the long-overdue $100 billion in climate finance to developing nations. 

Cooperation between China and the United States was crucial in securing the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and the wider UN 2030 Agenda for Development, with the Sustainable Development Goals at its core.

The language in the preamble to the SDGs powerfully articulates the values behind this collective endeavour, and the obligations that the leaders of China, the US and over 190 other UN member states committed themselves to in 2015:

We are resolved to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want, and to heal and secure our planet. We are determined to take the bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path.”

Such a need for bold and transformative steps applies just as much to debates on global peace and security as it does to climate and the SDGs. 

Again, China and the United States have particular responsibilities here as nuclear powers and Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council. 

I certainly welcome the statement earlier this month by all P5 states reaffirming the Reagan-Gorbachev declaration that “a nuclear war cannot be won, and must never be fought”, but much more needs to be done, including at the upcoming Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. 

In this regard China offers a particular model of leadership: it is the sole P5 state to adhere to a “no first use” policy regarding its nuclear weapons. 

At a time when growing mistrust between states combined with technological advancements raises the prospect of a new, destabilising nuclear arms race, “no first use” is a critical doctrine that can defuse tensions, and I hope that China will continue to show leadership in this area, particularly in constraining the development of its own nuclear arsenal. 

Of course this would be facilitated by the current US Nuclear Posture Review concluding in a way that furthers disarmament and de-escalation; as my fellow Elder Gro Brundtland wrote last month in the Financial Times, “the solution is not to double down on a costly nuclear arms race, but rather to seek dialogue and arms control negotiations to contain this threat.”

The challenges our world faces are legion, and too often in recent years we have not seen ethical and bold leadership that is commensurate with the task ahead. 

But, inspired by the words of my dear friend and first Chair of The Elders, the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, I refuse to be a pessimist and - like him - am a “prisoner of hope”. I am convinced that we can pool our collective talents and ingenuity to build a better world for future generations.

There are and will be differences, but that is typical of human beings and any family knows it.

The world needs China and the United States to be working together, marshalling and complementing their respective strengths and developing robust frameworks for 21st century governance, sustainability and prosperity. 

It is in this spirit that I hope your discussions will continue and new ideas will bloom.

Thank you.  

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