More than a phone call!

Xi's reaching out to Ban Ki-moon wasn't without a purpose

By Tom Plate (Pacific Perspectives)

Published: Thu 28 Mar 2013, 8:37 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 7:16 PM

Gestures do not always have to be empty ones. Inadvertently or not, they can reflect the reality of a mentality. Let us hope this is the case with the new-boy-on-the-superpower-block: China’s leader Xi Jinping.

What happened was that almost out of the blue – or more factually, in the instance of smog-locked Beijing, out of the capital’s soupy grey sky -- the China new president placed a long-distance telephone call to the Secretary-General of the United Nations in New York. On first blush, that might not have seemed like such a big deal. In this Internet age, even long-distance phone calls are a dime a dozen. But there may be more here than meets the ear: The previous Chinese president – Hu Jintao – never once used telephone diplomacy with Ban.

BLOSSOMING FRIENDSHIP… Chinese President Xi Jinping smiles as his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin gestures during a document signing ceremony in Moscow. — AFP

And, even allowing for the fact that Hu seemed to have been an exceptionally emotionally reserved personality, at least in public, that was odd. Ban loves to be called – at any hour of the day or night -- and, famously, is known to hate keeping any caller waiting. A head of state can call him any time. The former South Korean foreign minister believes it is his job to prioritise returning the call to trying to sleep. Yes, that is his way.

And so I think the new boss of China is off to a good start by calling Ban. After all, the United Nations is very important to China. It was a founding member and landed one of the five Security Council vetoes. Over time that power has allowed its UN profile to approximate China’s rising importance -- and to underscore its proclaimed willingness to play the peaceful multinational game. In fact, other than the WTO (World Trade Organisation), it’s hard to think of an international organisation more suited to China’s desire to show the world it really is a responsible team player. The UN is perfect for China.

What’s more, behind the scenes in New York, China and the United States work together more efficiently and professionally than we generally realise. Effective diplomacy is the product of an adult relationship, which, despite periodic public nastiness on both sides, Beijing and Washington usually display. The UN easily accommodates quiet bilateral diplomacy because so much goes on there – and it is in a city that (as we are told again and again) never sleeps.

So who knew why Hu never phoned the UN chief? After all, back in 2006, Beijing and Washington had agreed that the foreign minister of South Korea was a very good choice to replace Kofi Annan. There was no rancor about this decision at all. So it couldn’t have been anything the matter with the Korean that upset Hu. Maybe there was something the matter with Hu.

We will have to let future historians sort it all out. But one thing we know right now: Xi is no Hu. With his outgoing personality, he might even prove, for all we know, to be China’s answer to America’s Bill Clinton. There may be more to this than atmospherics. Xi may be starting what we in the West would label a new charm offensive.

Going back to the phone call: According to the UN, Xi went out of his way to tell Ban that government policy would emphasise internationalism not unilateralism. China, he suggested, was fully aware that a rising power had to assume responsibilities on the world stage. Xi apparently continued in this style for a bit of time.

Ban must have taken this all in with a smile. It was music to the secretary general’s ears, of course. When the UN is no more than the product of the enormous egos and bitter self-interests of the almost 200 member states, it’s a dreary place to behold, much less to try to lead. It is only when leaders make even the most modest efforts to rise above the norm of individual national interests that suddenly it’s possible for the UN to become transformed into a special place.

But after that, who knows? Maybe Xi was saying to Ban Ki-moon – and thus to the world – that whatever happens after he is gone, conflict is going to be avoided on his watch. It’s a very nice thought, anyway. No doubt the hard-working Ban could live with more phone calls like.

Veteran US journalist Tom Plate is a professor at Loyola Marymount University

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