NEW YORK (Reuters) – As China and the United States feuded at the United Nations this week over COVID-19 and climate, one of the world’s smallest states pleaded for detente.
“Micronesia asks our American and Chinese friends to reinforce their cooperation and friendship with each other … to achieve what is best for our global community,” the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) President David Panuelo told the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in a video address.
Micronesia – with a population of about 113,000 – and its Pacific Island neighbours have long been stuck in a diplomatic tug-of-war between the world’s biggest economic powers as China takes on U.S. influence in a region Washington has considered its backyard since World War Two.
During his Friday address to the gathering of world leaders – pre-recorded due to the pandemic – Panuelo acknowledged that competition had been beneficial for some people in the Pacific.
But he warned that the efforts “also potentially threaten to fracture long-standing alliances within our Pacific community, and could become counterproductive to our collective desire for regional solidarity, security, and stability.”
The U.S.-Chinese showdown is now playing out at the 193-member United Nations, where Beijing has pushed for greater multilateral influence in a challenge to traditional U.S. leadership. Tensions between the two superpowers have hit boiling point at the world body over the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
Micronesia’s plea stood out during the annual – yet virtual – gathering of world leaders at the United Nations this week because while most countries called for unity to combat COVID-19, other references to U.S. and Chinese frictions were generally oblique.
International Crisis Group UN director Richard Gowan said most leaders want to avoid getting entangled in the tensions.
“A lot of the UN’s members think the U.S. is destructive and China is power-hungry. They don’t find either very appealing,” he said. “Ambitious Europeans like (French President Emmanuel) Macron see a chance to fill the leadership gap, so they are willing to challenge Beijing and Washington.”
Macron addressed the General Assembly last Tuesday after U.S. President Donald Trump demanded that China be held accountable for having “unleashed” COVID-19 on the world, prompting Beijing to accuse him of “lies” and abusing the UN platform to provoke a confrontation.
“The world as it is today cannot come down to simple rivalry between China and the United States, no matter the global weight of these two great powers, no matter the history that binds us together,” Macron said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also warned the world is heading in a dangerous direction and “cannot afford a future where the two largest economies split the globe in a Great Fracture — each with its own trade and financial rules and internet and artificial intelligence capacities.”
In the Pacific, China has been forging stronger economic ties with small island nations, and drawing countries out of their long-term alliances with Taiwan, winning over Kiribati and the Solomon Islands in the past year.
China considers Taiwan its own territory with no right to state-to-state ties. Four of Taiwan’s remaining 15 diplomatic allies are in the Pacific – Palau, Nauru, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands. All four states spoke in support of Taiwan during their leaders’ addresses to the United Nations.
Though tiny in land mass, Pacific nations control vast swaths of highly strategic waters, forming a boundary between the Americas and Asia. As oceans warm and sea level rises, they are also on the frontlines of the global climate crisis.
“It is my hope … that the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China jointly champion global causes for global solidarity and cooperation, from climate change to COVID-19,” Panuelo said.