China warns of ‘confrontation and division’ as US returns to UNESCO headquarters

China has warned the United States against creating “confrontation and division” at Unesco as it returns to full membership this month, state media reported.

It came as a US proposal to join the 193-nation UN heritage, education and science agency was overwhelmingly passed on Friday.

China was one of 10 members who voted against the motion, while a “very large majority” of 132 was in favour, according to a Unesco press release.

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Passing the motion will see the United States make a full return to Unesco this month, some five years after it was released under President Donald Trump.

China’s permanent representative to Unesco, Yang Jin, raised concerns about the return, saying the United States skipped membership fees for years due to “controllable factors” like their own legislation.

“The goal for member states to join Unesco is to strengthen cooperation and contribute to peace, but not to confront or resist the influence of any specific country,” Yang said as quoted by the Chinese public television channel CCTV.

He was referring to the main reason the United States sought to join Unesco, which was to gain an advantage in its technological rivalry with China, in particular the establishment of global rules on the artificial intelligence.

In March, as the Biden administration presented the budget for fiscal year 2024, Undersecretary of State for Management John Bass said joining Unesco “would help us meet a cost of key opportunity that our absence creates in our global competition with China.”

“[If the US is] really serious about digital age competition with China…we can’t afford to be out any longer,” Bass said.

Responding to the result of Friday’s vote, Yang said: “[The US] should promote unity within the organization and contribute to cooperation, instead of creating confrontation and division,” according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

He also called on Washington to fulfill its responsibilities by reimbursing unpaid Unesco dues.

His return will see the United States fund 22% of the Paris-based body’s regular budget and gradually repay arrears of around $619 million, Unesco said in a press release on Friday.

“The return of the United States is a recognition of the centrality of UNESCO’s mandate, because in today’s global problems, it is impossible for the world to face them without education for all, without science, without culture, without information” – @AAzoulay#UnescoGC

– UNESCO 🏛️ #Education #Science #Culture 🇺🇳 (@UNESCO) June 30, 2023

Unpaid dues have risen since 2011, when the United States, along with its main ally Israel, stopped funding Unesco after member states voted to include Palestine as a member state.

The United States has also stopped paying the membership fee, which funds UNESCO programs, including those that support access to education in Africa, the memory of the Holocaust and the protection of journalists.

In 2017, the Trump administration announced it would leave the organization on December 31 the following year, citing backlog accumulation and “anti-Israel bias” as the main reasons.

Relations soured further when Israeli officials said Unesco, known for its World Heritage program, was unaware of Judaism’s ties to controversial historical sites like the Haram al-Sharif or the Temple Mount complex and the old city of Hebron or al-Khalil.

Friday’s Unesco vote came weeks after the Biden administration formally applied to join the agency. His June 8 letter to Unesco Director-General Audrey Azoulay cited the body’s recent reforms and new initiatives such as the standardization of AI and the reconstruction of the old city of Mosul in Iraq among the reasons for wanting to return.

Azoulay called it a “great day for Unesco and for multilateralism”, saying the organization was “moving towards universalism again with this return of the United States”.

This is not the first return to UNESCO for the United States. He stepped down during the Cold War in 1984, citing corruption and pro-Soviet and anti-American bias, before joining in 2002.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice journal on China and Asia for over a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2023 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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