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International relations

Xi and Trump to face off at virtual UN General Assembly

Japan's new PM Suga to make international debut as COVID pushes event online

U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to strike starkly different tones in remarks to the United Nations General Assembly. (Source photos by AP and Getty Images) 

TOKYO -- The opening of the United Nations General Assembly debate on Tuesday will be a quiet affair, as the pandemic has forced the annual gathering online.

But the 75th session comes as the world body faces perhaps its greatest confluence of challenges: a global health crisis that has caused a severe economic downturn, compounded by climate change and rising tensions between its two most powerful members, the U.S. and China.

World leaders who would typically flock to U.N. Headquarters in New York will instead deliver speeches via prerecorded video. Since they need not be physically present, more heads of state than usual are scheduled to address the assembly, whereas in a normal year they might send deputies or foreign ministers.

Speeches by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian leader Vladimir Putin are scheduled for Tuesday, marking the first appearances at the General Assembly for both men since 2015.

Xi's slot comes shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump, who is up for reelection in November and until recently had vowed to attend the event in person. Now he, too, is expected to deliver remarks remotely.

For Xi, "the priority is maintaining international cooperation against COVID and how to bring back the international economy to financial health," said Yu Tiejun, associate professor in the School of International Studies at Peking University.

"China's position on the U.N. is very supportive," Yu said.

In contrast, Trump has been sharply critical of international organizations. In May, he said he would pull the U.S. out of the World Health Organization, calling it a "puppet" of China -- the second-largest donor to the U.N. system after the U.S.

Trump has also opted out of UNESCO and threatened to withdraw from the World Trade Organization. In his remarks on Tuesday, he is expected to criticize the U.N. and its response to the pandemic.

"I hope China will not retaliate with words," Yu said. "The U.N. cannot function well if the main powers are not cooperating."

Ichiro Fujisaki, a former Japanese ambassador to the U.S., observed that "the U.S. is not showing tremendous interest in the U.N. General Assembly." On the other hand, he said, "China and Russia are trying to show they are globalist, multilateral powers."

Also delivering remarks on the first day of high-level debate will be President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, another U.S. rival, followed by French President Emmanuel Macron. South Korean President Moon Jae-in will address his last General Assembly before his term expires next year. Japan's new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, elected last week, will make his debut on the world stage on Friday.

Both Moon and Suga, caught between close security ties with the U.S. and economic relationships with China, are expected to play things cautiously in case Trump wins a second term.

And the online proceedings mean Suga, in particular, misses out on a chance to start building international relationships in person. For his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, this mingling was an important element of his diplomacy-driven foreign policy.

"Usually, the UNGA is more important for the outside bilateral meetings and small group meetings than for the assembly," said Fujisaki, who also represented Japan at the U.N.

Aside from the leaders' addresses, a number of virtual forums are scheduled for this week.

On Thursday, Xi is expected to participate in a meeting on the "maintenance of international peace and security," Niger, the African country that currently holds the Security Council presidency, confirmed to Nikkei. At the meeting, dignitaries will discuss global governance after the COVID-19 crisis.

On the same day, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson are to take part in a roundtable on climate change.

Guterres, who will speak first on Tuesday, is likely to urge world leaders to coordinate their pandemic responses and cooperate on vaccine development. "It is absolutely essential that a vaccine be considered a global public good," he said last week, according to U.N. Global Communications.

Guterres is also expected to ask countries to align their economic recovery plans with the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goals, which appear unlikely to be met by the 2030 deadline.

Additional reporting by Kaori Yoshida in New York.

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