OPINION | Wesley Seale: China chilled when it comes to UN reform

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Diplomats gathering for a United Nations Security Council meeting.
Diplomats gathering for a United Nations Security Council meeting.
File, Don Emmert / AFP

Wesley Seale writes that 50 years after the campaign by developing nations to give the People's Republic of China recognition at the UN, China has been slow to push for UN reform.


The centenary of the Communist Party of China marked much of last year's celebrations.

However, an anniversary that hardly went noticed was the fiftieth anniversary of the People's Republic of China (PRC) as "the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations." 

Up until 1971, the Republic of China, having participated as such in the founding of the UN and having signed the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, held the seat at the UN. 

Led by Albania, several developing countries advanced the cause of the PRC to become the legitimate representative of the Chinese people, under the banner of the "Restoration of the lawful rights of the People's Republic of China in the United Nations."

Eventually, with the support of some 76 mostly developing world states, UN General Assembly Resolution 2758 was adopted. Of these, 26 were African states. In total, 35 states opposed the resolution, among these being apartheid South Africa and the United States.

Fifty years after the passing of UNGA Resolution 2758 not much has changed for developing states, and Beijing, whom they had promoted and recognised, has hardly yielded any changes to the UN.

African representation on the UNSC

The latest January 8th statement of the ANC recently read that the ANC NEC urges "government to continue pursu[ing] the reform of the United Nations and its Security Council."

Seventeen years after the World Summit was held to discuss reform of the UN and the Ezulwini Consensus, hardly any work has been done on reforms of the UN and the UN Security Council (UNSC) in particular.

READ | Opinion: It is time for Africa to be represented permanently on the UN's Security Council

At Ezulwini in 2005, African leaders agreed to insist on two permanent UNSC seats for Africa and that the African Union (AU) itself would reach a consensus as to who the two seats should go to. 

This eventually led to the Sitre Declaration II endorsed by the AU.

Lack of support by BRICS partners, Russia and China

Even worse still, in the last decade and a half, South Africa has not been able to rely on its BRICS partners, permanent UNSC members Russia and China, to advance the cause of developing states in reforming the UN and Africa in particular.

As a result, this lack of support has seen these two countries been lumped with the former colonial powers into what is now to referred as the "big powers."

Special advisor to the South African Minister of International Relations, Zane Dangor, has characterised "the history of the UN [as] that [which] centres the needs of 'big powers'…".

He argues that unless the leaders of these countries are engaged, "the premier institution of global governance" will not be "repurposed to lead global efforts to reduce poverty and inequalities, in global political culture that values, respects, promotes and fulfils all human rights for all people." The current structure of the UNSC, steeped in colonial power, can therefore be described as neo-colonial today.

The calls to strengthen and defend multilateralism by President Xi Jinping and Valdmir Putin ring hollow in the age of Trumpism if these calls are not matched by deliberate efforts by these two leaders to reform the UN.

While these two leaders have made special efforts to rally support, especially from the developing world, they have been tediously slow to ensure that their own power is kept in check and limited.

Five decades after campaigning for China, the dividends for the representation of the developing world, especially Africa, has not paid off.

As we seemingly enter a new Cold War, it would be necessary for South Africa to again turn to its allies in the Non-Aligned Movement to garner support to ensure the democratic transformation of global governance.

- Dr Wesley Seale has a PhD in Chinese foreign policy.

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