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In U.N. Speech, Xi Focuses on Japan

Instead of Syria, China's president emphasized his country's controversial history with its neighbor to the east.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 28:  People's Republic of China President Xi Jinping delivers remarks at the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters on September 28, 2015 in New York City. The ongoing war in Syria and the refugee crisis it has spawned are playing a backdrop to this years 70th annual General Assembly meeting of global leaders.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 28: People's Republic of China President Xi Jinping delivers remarks at the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters on September 28, 2015 in New York City. The ongoing war in Syria and the refugee crisis it has spawned are playing a backdrop to this years 70th annual General Assembly meeting of global leaders. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Bringing peace to Syria and defeating the Islamic State dominated the start of Monday’s speeches by world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly. Jordan’s King Abdullah II even likened the threat of extremist groups to a “third world war.” Chinese President Xi Jinping, however, focused more on World War II — and on China’s often fraught relationship with the country that invaded it in the 1930s: Japan.

Indeed, though he barely mentioned the country by name, a surprisingly large portion of Xi’s relatively colorful maiden General Assembly speech referenced — sometimes obliquely — Japan, China’s neighbor, major trading partner, and antagonist.

Xi opened his speech by mentioning China’s victory over the Japanese in the “world anti-fascist war,” Beijing’s preferred name for World War II. He noted that the U.N., founded in October 1945, was created to ensure world peace and stability. It was a subtle dig against Japanese aggression — and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent success at amending Japan’s constitution to allow for a more muscular military role for the country. Such subtext — that China, unlike Japan, is on the right side of history — persisted throughout his speech. China, Xi said, “will never pursue hegemony, expansion, or sphere of influence” — three words often used to describe Japan’s behavior during World War II.

The other nation that suffused Xi’s speech, in spirit rather than by name, was Syria. U.S. President Barack Obama, in his General Assembly speech earlier in the morning, said that “nowhere is our commitment to international order more tested than in Syria.” Obama advocated fighting the “apocalyptic cult” of the Islamic State and working together with “any nation” to resolve the Syrian conflict. Xi, who opposes interventionism — in Syria, in China’s domestic affairs, and in the disputed territory Beijing claims in the South China Sea — was far more implicit. “Big countries should treat small countries as equals and take a right approach to justice and interests by putting justice before interests,” he said. Later, he emphasized the “inviolability” of nations’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. Those who use force, he said, “will find that they are only lifting a rock to drop on their own feet.”

Though vague in many places, Xi’s speech offered more than pointed platitudes and obscure references. He also prepared the ground for a major climate summit in Paris later this year, touting China’s recent progress in coming to grips with climate change. “We should firmly pursue green, low-carbon, circular and sustainable development,” he said, a nod to his announcement Friday in Washington that Beijing will implement a national program to curb greenhouse gas emissions. And he reminded rich countries they bear the brunt of historical responsibility for the emissions that cause global warming and asked them to help finance clean energy in the developing world. He also pledged $1 billion to the U.N. over the next 10 years, for a “peace and development fund” that would support the organization’s work globally. And he announced $100 million of “free military assistance” to the African Union to support the creation of an African crisis response force.

As Xi announced his aid, the live-stream camera at the General Assembly panned over African delegates applauding his generosity. But for this speech, Xi was focusing on an international audience of two: Obama and Abe.

Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. @isaacstonefish

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