How the Old Hands Do It

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Robert Koehler has some chuckles at U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s expense, but it seems even the ancient Middle Kingdom needs some schooling on diplomacy

Sha Zukang’s highly undiplomatic toast to Ban Ki-moon in the Alps last week raises questions about China’s diplomatic commitment to the United Nations, according to senior U.N. officials. Diplomats wonder whether the incident will spur Beijing to take the organization more seriously, and to send its best and brightest to serve at the world body.

“This raises questions about whether China is a mature power,” said a senior U.N.-based diplomat. “The Chinese need to think about this.”

Three years ago, China put forward Sha for a top post in the U.N. Secretariat, even though the Chinese diplomat had little interest in serving in the international organization and had developed a reputation for creating public controversies.

U.N. officials described Sha as a smart, hard-working colleague. But they said he struggled to make the transition from an ardent Chinese nationalist to an impartial international civil servant. One official recalled an initial meeting with Sha at which he introduced himself by saying, “Please call me Sha: it means King in Chinese.”

Sha’s tenure at the United Nations has coincided with Chinese attempts to increase its commitment to U.N. affairs. China had once refused to participate in U.N. peacekeeping operations; it is now sending thousands of peacekeepers to serve in missions from Haiti to Lebanon. Chinese diplomats also played a role in prodding Sudan to accept a U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur.

In recognition of China’s growing importance, Ban agreed to China’s request to hire Sha to become the U.N. undersecretary general for Economic and Social Affairs. But Sha has struggled to fit in, and his relations with colleagues seem to have been less than collegial. Sha claimed in his inebriated toast that he suspected Ban had tried to force him out of his job.

U.N. officials say that it will not be easy for Ban to fire Sha even if he wanted to. Ban needs China’s support for his expected bid to serve a second term as U.N. Secretary General. They also say that Sha will resign only if forced to do so by Beijing. A more likely scenario, according to an U.N. based diplomat, is that Sha will serve out the final year of his term as Ban’s undersecretary. “We’ve put up with him for three years; we can put up with him for another one,” said one U.N. official.


sked today if Ban was considering getting rid of Sha, a U.N. official declined to speculate, saying simply: “Mr. Sha has apologized. Beyond that, I don’t have any further response to your question.”

So, all politics is personal, even at the international level?

This is also interesting in the context of Beijing’s spreading economic clout intruding into its neighbor’s economic sanctums. After all, no one believes Ban became an international saint just because he went to Turtle Bay. It’s fun to watch the “Easterners” deal with their own nationalistic prejudices.

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Filed under: Business/Economy, East Asia, IGOs, Korea, Politics Tagged: ban ki moon, china, prc, rok, sha zukang, South Korea, united nations


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