This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Chinese Vice President Han Zheng told the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday that the world should resist U.S. hegemonism, reject the use of human rights as a “political tool” and never doubt Beijing’s plans to reunite China’s mainland with the democratic island of Taiwan.
The mostly anodyne speech hewed closely to standard lines often repeated by China’s leaders and, in the end, was less notable for its contents than for who delivered them: a little-known figure on the world stage promoted to vice president only six months ago.
Han was left to deliver China’s remarks after both President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi opted to stay away from New York.
But the former Shanghai mayor showed he was well versed.
In a thinly veiled dig at the United States, Han said China “opposes hegemonism, power politics, unilateralism and Cold War mentality” and that “legitimate security concerns of all countries” had to be addressed, in apparent defense of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The vice president attacked what he said was “double standards” in international criticism of its human rights abuses. He said Beijing opposed, “in particular, the use of human rights and democracy as a political tool to interfere in the affairs of other countries.”
Almost like clockwork, Han then reiterated Beijing’s stance that the democratic island of Taiwan is a renegade Chinese province.
“Taiwan has been an inalienable part of China’s territory since ancient times,” he said, adding no one in the world “should ever underestimate the firm resolve, strong will and the power of the Chinese people to safeguard their sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Xi was not the only leader to snub the assembly, with French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, along with Russian President Vladimir Putin, also staying away from New York.
Xi’s decision to not even send Wang, though, was all the more conspicuous due to where the foreign minister was instead: Moscow, on a four-day trip to meet with Putin, inviting him to visit Xi next month for a high-profile Belt and Road conference in Beijing.
In the weeks leading up to the U.N. General Assembly, there had been speculation that Wang might use a trip to New York to also meet with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who visited Beijing in June and extended an open invitation to Wang to make a return U.S. visit.
But a senior Russian official said on Tuesday that Wang’s trip to Moscow was important for the new Russia-China axis opposing the Western world, according to a report in the Associated Press.
“Amid the campaign unleashed by the collective West that is aimed at the double containment of Russia and China,” said Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, “it’s particularly important to further deepen Russian-Chinese coordination and interaction on the international arena.”
Instead of meeting Wang, Blinken met with Han on Monday. The Chinese vice president seemed to tell reporters before the meeting that Beijing thought the United States could do more to thaw ties.
“We sincerely hope that the U.S. would take more concrete action to deliver on the common understanding between our leaders for the sound and steady growth in China-U.S. relations,” Han said.
Blinken, in diplomatic terms, called for more in-person meetings.
“From the perspective of the United States,” he said, “face-to-face diplomacy is the best way to deal with areas where we disagree, and also the best way to explore areas of potential cooperation between us. The world expects us to responsibly manage our relationship.”
Blinken is one of four Biden administration cabinet members – along with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, climate envoy John Kerry and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo – to have visited Beijing since June, with no Chinese officials making the return visit so far.
Meetings between Biden and Xi – who have not met since last year’s G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, where they pledged to “responsibly manage” ties to avoid conflict – have also been postponed.
The pair were also expected to meet at this year’s G-20 summit in New Delhi earlier this month, but Xi chose not to attend. Biden said he was “disappointed,” but added that he was still “going to get to see him.”
Speculation has now shifted to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in San Francisco in November, where the two leaders could meet on the sidelines if the Chinese president, who has so far this year only left China for trips to Russia and South Africa, decides to attend.
Earlier this month, China’s spy agency hinted that a Biden-Xi meeting depended on the United States “showing sufficient sincerity.”
But there remains hope. Over the weekend, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, met with Wang in Malta while Wang was en route to Russia, reportedly to lay groundwork for a meeting.
The White House called the meeting “candid, substantive and constructive,” said that it built off Biden and Xi’s meeting in Bali and added that it hoped for “additional high-level engagement” soon.