Joe Biden’s choice of Linda Thomas-Greenfield as ambassador to the United Nations is the latest signal that he will seek to re-engage with international bodies but while this may herald a change of tone towards China, many observers believe the administration will seek to keep up the pressure over issues such as human rights, Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
Thomas-Greenfield, a veteran diplomat, could use the UN as a forum to hold Beijing to account, but the Biden White House is also expected to keep some doors open and work with China in the fight against climate change – one of the president-elect’s main priorities.
Biden and Thomas-Greenfield have already moved to draw a sharp distinction between themselves and the Trump administration, which has been criticised for its “America first” approach and backing away from international institutions and treaties.
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“America is back. Multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back,” Thomas-Greenfield said on Tuesday following her appointment.
She also pledged to “break down barriers, connect, and see each other as humans” in a tweet two days later.
The current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo scoffed at the Thomas-Greenfield appointment during an interview with Breitbart news on Tuesday.
“Multilateralism for the sake of hanging out with your buddies at a cool cocktail party, that’s not in the best interest of the United States of America,” Pompeo said in response to her Tuesday remarks.
Analysts said Biden’s plans to give his UN envoy full cabinet status – which current ambassador Kelly Craft does not have – is a sign that the new administration is stepping up its engagement with international agencies.
Under Trump, the US took on other countries on issues such as Iranian sanctions to quitting the World Health Organization, a move Biden has pledged to reverse.
“The Trump administration’s rejection of multilateralism has left a leadership and financial vacuum for other states, like China, to fill at the United Nations,” said Courtney Fung, assistant professor of international relations at the University of Hong Kong and an associate fellow at Chatham House.
“Repairing a damaged US reputation, rebuilding relationships with multilateral partners, and wisely using diplomatic and financial capital are tough tasks ahead for Biden’s UN team – after all, multilateral politics has gone on in spite of Trump’s multilateral withdrawal,” she said.
But China-US tensions are expected to continue and play out at the UN, Li Mingjiang, an assistant professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said.
“Washington will very keep up the pressure on the whole gamut of human rights issues, as the Trump administration has at the UN, from Xinjiang to Hong Kong,” said Li.
The Trump administration called for a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in May to discuss Hong Kong, but the effort was blocked by China.
But Thomas-Greenfield will probably have to reach out to China to achieve Biden’s goals on climate change, Li said.
“If the Biden administration wants to play a bigger role, it will find itself in a position where it has to cooperate with China on some level, otherwise multilateral cooperation will end in deadlock,” said Li.
Thomas-Greenfield, an African affairs specialist, has said little about China during her long career as a diplomat.
In 2006, when she was deputy assistant secretary for African affairs, Thomas-Greenfield said she was not concerned about China’s growing interest in Africa, but the US would be watching China “very closely”.
“There is lots of room for every country to do trade and development in Africa,” she said at the time.
Atul Alexander, assistant professor of law at West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, said the US’s approach towards the UN may not shift significantly.
“While the Trump administration has been a staunch supporter of Israel, it is possible that China and the US may find themselves both in favour of future general assembly resolutions on Israeli violence against Palestinians, but we will have to see,” said Alexander.
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