TIME 100 Talks
August 18, 2020 5:27 AM EDT

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said Tuesday that the relationship between the U.S. and China “has never been as dysfunctional as it is today” and warned that escalating tensions between the two powers risk dividing the world into “two blocs.”

“These divides, namely the economic divide, risks to create two blocs, with two dominant currencies, with the two sets of trade rules, two different internets, two strategies in artificial intelligence and then, inevitably, two geo-strategic and military strategies,” he said during a TIME100 Talks discussion on global leadership. “That is a huge risk for the world.”

The U.S. and China are currently engaged in a multi-faceted and wide-ranging confrontation that includes everything from intellectual property disputes to the origins of the coronavirus to human rights. Tensions had been simmering prior to the Trump Administration, with President Obama attempting to counter China’s rising military presence in the South China Sea and seeking to offset its economic might with policies like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trump escalated the tensions, engaging in an economically damaging trade war and, more recently, blaming the country for the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We all have different interests. It’s not easy to make the international community come together,” Guterres said. “But the threats we face and the fragilities we face should force all to understand that what unites us is more important than what divides us.”

Tuesday’s TIME100 Talks also featured 27th Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard, African Leadership Group founder and CEO Fred Swaniker, actor and U.N. Development Programme Goodwill Ambassador Michelle Yeoh and a special performance and message from Red Velvet – IRENE & SEULGI.

In the interview, Guterres called on wealthy countries to help their poorer counterparts in the fight against COVID-19. Debt repayment should be suspended for countries “that have no capacity to access financial markets” and wealthy creditors should consider restructuring and forgiving the debt of poor countries that have had to borrow huge sums of money to survive the pandemic and its economic fallout, he said.

“If we have a cascade of bankruptcies at national level, we might then move into more than a recession, into a depression in the global economy,” he said. “The impact would be devastating for us.”

Guterres said he also fears the rise of “vaccine nationalism,” where countries are competing, rather than collaborating, in the race for a vaccine. “Either we will all be free of the disease, or nobody will be free,” he said.

Amid all these urgent challenges, Guterres called for countries to double down on their commitments to fight climate change, using money dedicated to economic recovery on climate-change programs that would stimulate the economy and reduce emissions at the same time. If the world doesn’t change course, he said, temperatures will rise as much as 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century which “would be absolutely devastating to human life in the planet.”

“This is an opportunity to use these massive investments,” he said, “to build back better.”

This article is part of #TIME100Talks: Finding Hope, a special series featuring leaders across different fields encouraging action toward a better world. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.

Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com.

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