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China to play larger role in UN agenda setting

By Xu Qiyuan, Sun Liangying | 2015-09-28 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The New Development Bank BRICS (NDB BRICS) is set up to foster greater financial and development cooperation among the five emerging markets. Closing infrastructure gap is prioritized in the bank’s agenda, overlapping with Goal 9 in the UN post-2015 development agenda.


This year marks the 70th anniversary of the United Nations. The history of the organization can be divided into three phases.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the UN was mainly dedicated to protecting the sovereignty, economic autonomy and natural resources of its member states as well as their national independence. A fair and just global economic order was the primary concern.


In the last two decades, sustainable development has been at the center of UN’s working agenda. The concept has been fully elaborated with reference to economic, social, human and environmental forms development.

Starting in the 21st century, the third phase was reinforced by a concept of progressive development that stresses participation, measurability and feasibility. The UN extended the implementation cycle of its latest development agenda to 15 years. The first cycle will be completed by the end of  2015.

The development strategy guiding the first two implementation cycles in the first three decades of the 21st century has the following characteristics: It is organized around a profound core concept. Its working agenda involves more organizations than ever. A commonly agreed performance measurement and review mechanism has been formed among member states, and the focus of the development agenda has been shifted to the implementation of measurable goals.

The ideals and implications of the UN’s development agenda have continued to evolve in the past 70 years. Correspondingly, its enforcement mechanisms have continued to improve. The UN General Assembly retains the ultimate authority of agenda setting. The UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and its subordinate agencies are responsible for executing the agenda. The ECOSOC is empowered to conduct research, make proposals, draft joint agreements and convene international assemblies. Formed out of inter-governmental protocols, each specialized agency at the UN focuses on a specific field, such as economy, society, culture, education or public health.

Currently, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are affiliated to both the Bretton Woods System and the UN. They are among the specialized agencies at the UN. The World Trade Organization is not obligated to report to the General Assembly, but it often provides consultation to the assembly and the ECOSOC with a specific focus on finance and development. In addition, the ECOSOC and the United Nations Development Programme are jointly responsible for the second implementation cycle from 2016 to 2030. They will organize and coordinate cooperation among nearly 60 UN subordinate agencies, international institutions and other provisional organizations.

Moreover, the UN agenda has become more ambitious with the active participation of non-governmental organizations and the private sector. As donors, the latter played an increasingly prominent role in the cause. To make an agenda work, the procedures of negotiation, framing, execution, evaluation and transition to the next program must be followed. China’s involvement is guided by three principles—negotiation based on mutual trust and equality, inclusive agenda setting, and a rational, feasible agenda.

As its national strength grows, China is playing a more influential role in agenda setting at the UN. The international community also urges China to bear more responsibilities. However, the country’s strength and influence need to be reexamined through a more objective lens in order to avoid exaggeration.

China’s opportunities
There are four paths for China to deepen its involvement in UN affairs.


First of all, China can help rationalize and depoliticize the UN agenda. Inclusiveness should be the guiding spirit of its effort, with a stress on “common but differentiated responsibilities” and the disparate status quo of each country. In addition, China needs to convince an international audience with practical cases that the principle of inclusive development is rational in nature. Moreover, the country needs to foster new transnational platforms, such as the New Development Bank BRICS (NDB BRICS), previously known as the BRICS Development Bank, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

With an eye toward the different status quo of each country, these platforms are meant to provide optimized alternatives to countries that need development funds. Moreover, they can also stimulate long-established transnational organizations to adjust their guidelines.

Second, China needs to clarify its own principles. The current UN agenda evolved with the framework of the “Washington Consensus” because developed countries, such as the US, have traditionally been the architects of international aid. The UN Millennium Development Goals does go beyond the horizon of the “Washington Consensus,” but its focus is still fixed upon passive intervention. Moreover, this kind of intervention only address the surface need of recipient countries yet pays no attention to their limited production capacity. Ultimately ineffective, it is incapable of driving domestic development in these countries. In this light, China needs to distill and clarify the principles of its unique, successful experience, and then interpret it in a way that readily acceptable to international audiences.

Third, China should play a more influential role in financing development programs worldwide. Currently, insufficient funding hinders global development. China does have something to offer in this regard. Developing countries can learn some valuable lessons from China’s success story of the past three decades.

Through trial and error, China has already formed a model of effective financing and capital allocation. Meanwhile, the Chinese government is capable of providing monetary support to the new UN agenda. In addition to assisting multilateral development systems in financing, China is laying foundation for the NDB BRICS and the AIIB, which will lend more momentum to various development programs to come.

Finally, China should properly handle relations between long-established multilateral systems and newly founded organizations. It needs to pay due respect to the fundamental importance of extant UN agencies, formulate a rational assessment on the roles and functions of emerging institutions, and facilitate a partnership between them.

Even though, competition between new and old organizations is inevitable. In this vein, it is imperative to reinterpret and elaborate on the Paris Declaration, which was intended to facilitate cooperation between the global South and the global North. The anticipated reinterpretation and elaboration ought to be formulated on the basis of negotiation and conducive to the creation of an institutional space that allows for the parallel operation of multilateral organizations.

Xu Qiyuan is a research fellow at the Institute of World Economics and Politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Sun Liangying is a post doctorate at the School of International Studies at Peking University.



Built on the Millennium Development Goals, the UN post-2015 development agenda contains 17 objectives:
1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
7.  Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development