Is it time for an Asian UN chief?

The world will be watching China's role in finding a successor to Kofi Annan.

The United Nations is in the process of seeking a successor to Secretary- General Kofi Annan, whose term expires at the end of this year.

Many believe that this time, it is Asia's turn to fill the position. Mr. Annan himself voiced the same idea when visiting Tokyo earlier this month. The selection has already captured worldwide attention, and expectations are that China will prove itself to be a key player in recruiting an Asian for the post. With enormous power derived from explosive economic growth, China has been attempting to increase its influence around the globe. The process of choosing the next UN chief could reveal how China is shaping international politics for the coming decades.

Currently there are three Asians who have already declared their candidacy for the job: South Korean foreign minister Ban Ki-Moon; Thai deputy premier Surakiart Sathirathai; and Sri Lanka's Jayantha Dhanapala, UN undersecretary-general for disarmament from 1998 to 2003.

After Ban Ki-Moon's candidacy was announced in mid-February, the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun immediately ruled out a possible Tokyo nod for him because of Seoul's fierce opposition to the Japanese bid for a permanent seat on the Security Council. Mr. Surakiart is the official candidate of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and he claims support from 128 UN members. However, his campaign is now shadowed by recent political turmoil in Bangkok and the defeat Thailand suffered earlier this month in the election for members of the newly established UN Human Rights Council.

Former UN Undersecretary-General Dhanapala seems to be in a better position. With a long career in multilateral diplomacy focusing on peace and security, his qualifications are highly competitive. Educated in the US, Mr. Dhanapala served a two-year tour as Sri Lankan ambassador to Washington from 1995 to 1997. In addition to English, he also speaks Chinese and French. In media interviews, Dhanapala has pledged his commitment to UN reform.

People might argue that if selected, Dhanapala would be another UN chief, like Annan, out of its bureaucratic ranks. However, firsthand experience in the huge world body would be a considerable benefit toward executing any meaningful reform.

For all three candidates, as longtime UN experts predict, the real competition will probably begin in the summer, before the UN General Assembly convenes in September.

In accordance with the UN Charter, "The Secretary General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council." In practice, the Council nominates only one candidate and then forwards the name to the General Assembly for endorsement. Meanwhile the five permanent members of the Council, Britain, China, France, Russia, and the US, have veto power over the candidate.

China is obviously leading the charge for a UN chief from Asia. But in fulfilling the task, Beijing faces three major hurdles:

First, consolidating Asian countries on the issue. Presumably, Beijing has to break a lot of diplomatic impasses in mediating for a common Asian candidate, given the political complication of the vast continent. Nevertheless, if a consensus could not be reached, Asia's chance might be in danger. Furthermore, if China fails to help deliver an Asian to the post, its influence in Asia will unquestionably suffer a setback.

Second, dealing with the US. To a certain extent, the selection of the next UN secretary-general is a test for China-US relations, putting on trial their mutual trust and willingness to cooperate in world affairs. Though some tensions remain, China-US relations are presently in a stable condition. In the next few months, if there is no serious confrontation between China and the US on Iran and on the upcoming UN budgetary dispute, it should not be very difficult for the two countries to find common ground regarding the nomination for secretary-general.

Third, addressing the concerns of other UN members. Canadian Ambassador Allan Rock wrote in mid- February to all UN members, proposing more transparency and broader member-state involvement in choosing Annan's successor. Recently, some members also called for a greater role of the General Assembly in the recruitment, suggesting that the Security Council forward more than one candidate for approval. With all these developments as background, people will watch carefully to see whether Beijing can contribute to make the selection as open and fair as possible while vigorously pushing for a UN chief from Asia.

The selection of the next UN secretary-general is the most significant campaign China has ever engaged in at the United Nations since Beijing was first admitted to the world body in 1971. As the process unfolds, China might want to demonstrate that as a responsible member of the international society, it can act along with other countries in the direction toward a more secure and prosperous world, now and in the future.

Yun Tang is a member of the World Affairs Council of Washington, D.C.

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