A delegation from the National Committee on United States–China Relations visits the United Nations in 1973. COURTESY OF NCUSCR.

China is a founding member of the United Nations and, as a permanent member of its Security Council, holds veto power over resolutions brought before the U.N. Due to political unrest in China during the years following the U.N.’s founding in 1945, China’s representation in the U.N. became a source of unresolved domestic strife and international conflict for over two decades.

The United Nations was established as an international peacekeeping organization on 26 June 1945, several weeks after the conclusion of World War II in Europe, when representatives of fifty nations, including China, met in San Francisco to sign the U.N. charter. As one of the “Big Five” Allied nations (along with the United States, the Soviet Union, France, and Great Britain), China participated in negotiations leading to the U.N.’s creation at the Teheran (1943), Dumbarton Oaks (1944), and Yalta (1945) conferences. China is not only a founding member but also one of the five permanent members of the U.N.’s Security Council.

The charter-signing ceremony was staged with great fanfare and publicity. Since each delegation signed in English alphabetical order, the Chinese were first and contributed to the pageantry by preparing fresh ink for traditional brush calligraphy. In 1945 the U.N. enjoyed support from the major political organizations in China. The ten-member delegation in San Francisco was comprised of high-ranking officials representing diverse political views but all officially appointed as delegates by Republic of China (ROC) president Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) (1887–1975). The ROC’s ruling Guomindang (Nationalist Party) sent four representatives: T. V. Soong (Soong Ziwen), minister of foreign affairs; Ambassador V. K. Wellington Koo (Gu Weijin); Defense Council Minister Wang Chung-hui (Wang Conghui); and Ambassador Wei Tao-ming (Wei Daoming). Dong Biwu was sent by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The State Socialist Party sent historian Carson Chang (Zhang Junmai), and Li Huang represented the Nationalist Youth Party. Also in attendance were philosopher Hu Shih (Hu Shi), Ginling College president Wu Yifang, and Hu Lin. After ratification by the ROC’s People’s Political Council, the charter was signed by President Chiang Kai-shek on 24 August 1945. Soon, however, cooperation and goodwill among political rivals in China disappeared as civil war led to a CCP victory and the fleeing of Chiang and the Guomindang government to Taiwan. Within five years of the charter’s signing, China’s representation in the U.N. would be a source of domestic strife and international conflict that would not be resolved for over two decades.

PRC-ROC Conflict over U.N. Membership

The founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on 1 October 1949 set in motion a controversy over which government, Beijing or Taipei, should occupy China’s seat. On 18 November 1949, Beijing’s premier Zhou Enlai (1898–1976) communicated to U.N. authorities that the PRC was the sole legal government of China and the legitimate representative of the Chinese people. He further notified the president of the General Assembly that his government repudiated the legal status of the U.N. delegation headed by Ambassador T. F. Tsiang (Jiang Tingfu) (1895–1965) and called for the immediate expulsion of Guomindang representatives. However, during the 1950s and 1960s Cold War politics prevailed when the U.S. government worked to keep its ally, the ROC headed by Chiang Kai-shek, in the U.N. while the Soviets and many Third World nations called for the PRC’s admission. Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has blamed hostility to China’s new government and “deliberate obstruction,” mainly by the United States, for preventing the PRC from assuming China’s seat despite “unremitting efforts” by the CCP beginning in 1950.

In September 1950 the U.N. General Assembly first considered the question of China’s membership when it rejected resolutions supporting the PRC sponsored by the USSR and India. The General Assembly then set up a special committee to review China’s representation, during which time the ROC held China’s seat. In 1951 the USSR repeated attempts to secure Beijing’s admission by putting forward proposals to place the question of China’s representation on the General Assembly agenda. At the time, PRC forces were fighting U.N. troops in the Korean War. After Soviet efforts failed the General Assembly approved a resolution sponsored by Thailand to postpone any review of China’s representation. Meanwhile, on 1 February 1951, the U.N. voted to condemn China as aggressor in Korea and initiated a global embargo of shipments of war materiel, further isolating the PRC from the international community. From 1951 to 1960, during each session of the United Nations, the General Assembly approved U.S.-sponsored motions to keep the question of China’s representation off the agenda. As a result, effective deliberation of the representation question was thwarted while the CCP openly condemned certain U.N. member states, particularly the United States, for what the Chinese referred to as subversive manipulation.

Despite Beijing’s failure to secure a U.N. seat, throughout the 1950s CCP leaders maintained a positive public outlook toward the U.N. CCP representatives occasionally participated in U.N. discussions on an ad hoc basis on issues of concern to China, including talks on the agenda item entitled “Complaint of Armed Invasion of Taiwan (Formosa)” (1950) as well as Security Council debate on the Korean War. In 1955 Premier Zhou Enlai told delegates at the Afro-Asian (Bandung) Conference that the Chinese people supported the purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter. In addition, many of the bilateral treaties signed by the Beijing government cited U.N. principles. By the end of the decade, however, CCP leaders began to question the value of the U.N. as a vehicle to promote international peace and openly criticized its actions, claiming, for example, that the U.N. had begun to serve the goals of “imperialism” and “neocolonialism.”

The 1960s were years of transition for Beijing’s official position toward the U.N. As more Asian and African nations won independence and joined the U.N., many of their governments called for the PRC’s admission as the legitimate government of China. In response, supporters of the ROC successfully sponsored resolutions in the General Assembly to consider China’s representation as an “important question,” thereby requiring passage by a two-thirds majority vote of member states. Such procedural changes made Beijing’s case problematic into the next decade. As a result, the PRC apparently abandoned hope of replacing the ROC, publicly accused member states of departing from the charter’s intentions, and refused to participate in ad hoc deliberations on issues involving China. In 1965 the CCP called for revisions to the U.N. Charter and proclaimed its support for the establishment of an alternative “revolutionary” United Nations organization.

Beijing’s position was influenced by two issues during the 1960s: the Sino-Soviet dispute and the development of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). China’s open break with its former ally, public by 1960, led to assertions by the Chinese that both the United States and the USSR were conspiring to keep Beijing out of the U.N. The power struggle within the CCP and turmoil associated with the Cultural Revolution kept the government focused on domestic issues. The PRC press during these years avoided the topic of China’s U.N. seat and advocated that third-world nations either not join or drop out of the U.N. By 1969, however, CCP leaders acknowledged the dangers of international isolation and the potential threat of the USSR, causing them to take another look at U.N. membership. A more moderate tone toward the U.N. was apparent in an October 1969 speech by Premier Zhou Enlai honoring Premier Alfred Raoul of the Congo, in which Zhou thanked that country for taking up China’s cause in the U.N. and advocating the expulsion of the Guomindang delegation.

The early 1970s were characterized by significant changes in China’s foreign policy that coincided with a shift in the U.N. vote on China’s representation. In 1970 General Assembly members who supported Beijing’s claim outnumbered the opposition for the first time. The ballot question on China’s resolution sponsored by eighteen member states resulted in fifty-one nations voting for the PRC and forty-nine voting against, with twenty-five abstentions. Apparently emboldened by the more widespread support, the Chinese government began to adopt new strategies aimed at winning the U.N. seat. A multifaceted campaign promoted a more pragmatic approach to foreign policy. Abandoning the antiforeign polemics associated with the Cultural Revolution, the CCP began courting the goodwill of dozens of nations through improved relations, increased contacts, and aid programs. After the visit of U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to China in July 1971, Beijing’s success seemed assured, causing U.N. Secretary-General U Thant to predict the likelihood of a solution to the representation conflict in favor of the PRC. At the General Assembly’s twenty-sixth session in 1971, 131 nations voted on Resolution 2758, the question of China’s seat. Seventy-six voted pro-PRC, thirty-five opposed, and seventeen abstained. PRC representatives arrived in New York and replaced those of the ROC on 11 November 1971.

Beijing’s first delegation was an experienced team. Vice Foreign Minister Qiao Guanhua (1912–1983) served as delegation head until 1976. He had represented China at several international conferences and had been present at the U.N. in 1950 when he spoke for the PRC as ad hoc participant during Korean War debates. The vice chairman and permanent representative to the Security Council, Huang Hua, also had considerable diplomatic experience and served as advisor to Premier Zhou Enlai. Huang was the PRC’s ambassador to Ghana and Egypt during the 1960s. Other delegates included Fu Hao, Chen Chu and U.S.-educated Xiong Xianghui, all of whom held high rank within the Foreign Ministry.

Champion of the Third World

In his first speech before the U.N. General Assembly in November 1971, Ambassador Qiao Guanhua outlined the theme for China’s role in the U.N. He announced that “like the overwhelming majority of the Asian, African and Latin American countries, China belongs to the Third World,” pledged Beijing’s support for “oppressed peoples and nations,” and condemned “the power politics and hegemony of big nations bullying small ones or strong nations bullying weak ones.” During the early 1970s the PRC occasionally used the U.N. as a stage to air its grievances against the two “imperialist superpowers,” the United States and the USSR, but, for the most part, the Chinese advanced their national interests with a pragmatic approach to U.N. politics aimed at improving relations with member states worldwide.

China’s early voting record revealed, for the most part, Beijing’s adherence to its stated goal of championing Third World initiatives. Throughout the 1970s China’s votes were more consistent with those of poorer Third World nations than with those of either the Western or Communist worlds. The PRC garnered favor with Asian, African, and Latin American nations by supporting, for example, resolutions on the “Declaration of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace,” demands by Latin American governments to extend territorial seas to 200 nautical miles, enlargement of the Economic and Social Council so as to include more developing nations, and relocation of Security Council meetings from New York to an African city. Moreover, China’s delegates were known to mingle informally with Third World colleagues, a practice in which the United States and Soviet Union participated infrequently. In addition, the U.N. became the platform for China’s critique of U.S. and Soviet positions on several contentious issues, including Middle Eastern politics and arms control, that promoted, in China’s view, “superpower hegemony.”

Veto Power

As a permanent member of the Security Council, China is one of five nations that holds the power to veto resolutions coming before the U.N. China’s use of the veto has been selective compared with that of the other permanent members, which together already have cast 254 vetoes. Since the founding of the U.N. China has used the veto six times, including the 1955 veto of Mongolia’s admission by the ROC on the grounds that Mongolia is a province of China. The five resolutions that the PRC vetoed are admitting Bangladesh (1972); calling (with the USSR) for a ceasefire during the Yom Kippur War (1973); sending 155 ceasefire observers to Guatemala (1997); extending the U.N. Preventative Deployment Force in Macedonia (1999); and criticizing (with Russia) Myanmar (Burma) on its human rights record (2007). Beijing used the veto to promote China’s foreign policy goals as well as to challenge many U.N. initiatives that the Chinese deem to be violations of sovereignty or territorial integrity. For example, the Beijing government vetoed the sending of U.N. peacekeeping forces to Guatemala and Macedonia because the two governments accorded diplomatic recognition to the government of Taiwan and not the PRC at the time. Pressure by China in the U.N. bore some success for Beijing as Guatemala resolved to stop pressing Taiwan’s interests in the U.N., resulting in the PRC’s lifting the veto within weeks. The Republic of Macedonia opened bilateral ties with Beijing in 2001. With the remaining three vetoes China took unpopular stands on several contentious issues.

The PRC cast its first veto on 25 August 1972, when it refused to support a Security Council resolution granting Bangladesh U.N. membership. China’s blocking the admission of a new Third World nation appeared to contradict its aim of promoting the rights of poorer nations. The Chinese, however, had argued for postponement of the vote because issues involving Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan had not been resolved, including the status of over ninety thousand Pakistani prisoners of war held by India. The Chinese accused the Soviets of attempting to embarrass Beijing by introducing the measure prematurely, forcing the Chinese to take an apparently hypocritical stand. China’s veto was in support of Pakistan, its ally since the 1962 invasion of China by India. Bangladesh gained a U.N. seat in September 1974 with no opposition from China.

The October 1973 Arab-Israeli War was the occasion for China to cast a negative vote along with the Soviets on a resolution calling for a ceasefire, presumably in protest of the United States’ sponsorship of Israel. After the cessation of hostilities the Chinese vigorously denounced what they deemed Soviet-U.S. manipulation of the Security Council when a U.N. emergency force (UNEF II) was deployed in the Sinai Peninsula. The Security Council representative, Huang Hua, referred to UNEF II as “an attempt to occupy Arab territories.” China, however, never blocked the establishment of U.N. peacekeepers for the Middle East and either abstained or was absent from Security Council votes on the issue.

The 2007 veto of a U.S.-sponsored Security Council resolution criticizing the government of Myanmar for its human rights record is consistent with Beijing’s view that the U.N. should not interfere in the internal affairs of member states. The resolution garnered support from nine Security Council members. Russia and South Africa also cast negative votes, while three others abstained. Beijing has maintained that the U.N. has no mandate to sanction governments for actions within their own borders.

Abstentions as Policy

Beijing’s sparse use of the veto since 1971 does not necessarily reflect China’s approval of Security Council actions that passed because the Chinese delegation failed to cast a negative vote. The Chinese have abstained or chosen not to participate in votes on many controversies. The strategy of abstaining is consistent with Beijing’s unwillingness to approve U.N. initiatives, such as peacekeeping forces or sanctions, that infringe upon a nation’s sovereignty or that could alienate China’s friends in the international organization. By not using its veto, China does no damage to its relations with either side in the conflict and also allows the U.N. to act.

The PRC has been critical of U.N. peacekeeping forces, claiming that they violate a nation’s sovereignty. The use of sanctions, the Chinese argue, can be a “double-edged sword” that harms innocent civilians along with the target government. The Chinese have not, however, consistently upheld these principles. Beginning in 1990 the Chinese have deployed military personnel to thirteen U.N. peacekeeping operations. China did not veto Security Council Resolution 1333, which placed sanctions on Afghanistan in 2000, nor did China veto any of the Security Council proposals since 2004 that imposed sanctions on Sudan, a state with which China has close economic ties.

China’s actions during the first Persian Gulf War are another example of the strategic use of the abstention. The U.N. has authorized the use of force only twice—in 1950 in the Korean War and in 1990 against Iraqi forces in Kuwait. China approved the eleven Security Council resolutions condemning Iraq’s aggression during the first Persian Gulf War, including the imposition of sanctions, but condemned the use of U.N.-sponsored military force against Iraq. Nevertheless, the Chinese chose not to veto military intervention. China’s selectivity in its use of the veto has caused many Third World leaders to question whether China’s interests will continue to coincide with those of poorer nations.

Millennium Challenges

On 8 September 2000, the U.N. overwhelmingly approved the Millennium Declaration, whose objective is to promote peace, security and disarmament. It also pledged to reduce by half the number of people with incomes of less than one dollar a day by 2015. With its phenomenal economic growth, China is on target to meet the economic targets established by the U.N., but other challenges for the twenty-first century may not be so easily resolved.

Since 1991 the government of Taiwan has indicated its desire to return to the United Nations. In 2004 Taiwan’s president, Chen Shui-bian, made the provocative claim, “Taiwan is a sovereign state, and should join the United Nations by the name Taiwan.” As a result, the controversy of China’s representation has been revisited. Taiwan’s allies have attempted to put the question of Taiwan’s inclusion on the General Assembly’s agenda but have failed to procure the required votes. Beijing remains steadfast in its position that Taiwan is part of China. Since the PRC can veto any resolution that acknowledges Taiwan’s sovereignty, the likelihood of Taiwan’s gaining a seat in the U.N. is dim.

Beijing has also promised to veto efforts to enlarge the Security Council. In 2005 four nations referred to as the “Group of Four” (G-4)—India, Germany, Japan, and Brazil—have called for increasing the Security Council from its present fifteen members to twenty-five. The G-4, moreover, has demanded the veto. The Chinese claim that the proposal fails to uphold the interests of most developing nations. It also diminishes the clout of the original “Big Five” founders of the United Nations. As China’s rise as a global power continues, China’s role in the United Nations will evolve.

Further Reading

Chai, T. R. (1980). Chinese politics in the General Assembly. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 44(1), 23–34.

Chai, W. (1970). China and the United Nations: Problems of representation and alternatives. Asian Survey, 10(5), 397–409.

Chiu, H., & Edwards, R. R. (1968). Communist China’s attitude toward the United Nations: A legal analysis. The American Journal of International Law, 62(1), 20–50.

Embassy of the People’s Republic of China. (2004, May). Struggle to restore China’s lawful seat in the United Nations. Retrieved July 8, 2008, from http://www.chinaembassy.ee/eng/zggk/xzgwjjs/t110281.htm

Fravel, M. T. (1996). China’s attitude toward U.N. peacekeeping operations since 1989. Asian Survey, 36(11), 1102–1121.

Kim, S. S. (1979). China, the United Nations, and world order. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mclaughlin, D. (1995, September). Signing the charter. UN Chronicle.

Ogden, S. (1979). China’s position on U.N. Charter review. Pacific Affairs, 52(2), 210–240.

Shichor, Y. (2006). China’s voting behavior in the UN Security Council. China Brief, 6(18).

Source: Grasso, June. (2009). United Nations–China Relations. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2345–2350. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek as a representative for China signing the United Nations Charter on 24 August 1945. COURTESY OF NCUSCR.

United Nations–China Relations (Liánhéguó hé Zh?ngguó de wàiji?o gu?nxì ???????????)|Liánhéguó hé Zh?ngguó de wàiji?o gu?nxì ??????????? (United Nations–China Relations)

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