The optimism of neoliberalism has been challenged by rising concerns about China playing a more active role in the United Nations (UN) and its specialized agencies. Currently, four of the 15 UN specialized agencies are headed by Chinese nationals, including the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDP), and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). And with its contribution rising to 12 percent of the UN regular budget, passing Japan at 8.5 percent, China is currently the second-largest monetary contributor to the UN.
China’s greater leadership role in the United Nations* has triggered the suspicion that it might take advantage to transform the organizations in ways that fit its interests. The suspicion about China’s expanding role in the UN has solid foundations, as Beijing has been assimilating its grand geopolitical agenda, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), into the United Nation Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), silencing the critics of its human rights record, providing monetary incentives to secure the support of other member states, and bringing more of its nationals into the UN.
China’s Growing Influence in the UN System
Since 2007, the position of under-secretary-general for the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) has been held by Chinese career diplomats, giving the Chinese government opportunities to reshape the UN’s development programs in accordance to its interests. According to the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), China has been promoting its BRI under the guise of SDGs. Liu Zhenmin, the incumbent head of DESA, openly claimed that the BRI serves the objectives of the SDGs at a high-level symposium. DESA also endorsed the China-funded program, “Jointly Building Belt and Road towards SDGs,” approving the BRI’s effect on achieving the Goals. Moreover, UN Secretary General António Guterres, assured that the UN system stands ready with Beijing to achieve the SDGs at the 2017 Belt and Road Forum.
Although the UN, as a whole, welcomes China’s efforts under the BRI and looks forward to its achievements in the SDGs, what should be noted is that the BRI was never meant to be purely an international development plan. By studying the BRI’s blueprint, it is not difficult to discern China’s geopolitical ambition to build unimpeded connections across strategic nodes in the region. For example, the construction of the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone and its affiliated deep-water port under the BRI will grant China access to the Indian Ocean without passing through the Strait of Malacca and the heavily disputed waters of the South China Sea, where U.S. Navy warships constantly cruise. By unloading cargo at the deep-water port, cargo, especially crude oil from the Middle East, can be transported to Kunming by train, securing China’s energy lifeline in the case of armed conflicts.
Another concern regarding China’s growing influence in the UN is that Beijing has been pressuring the latter to limit human rights groups’ participation in key events. For instance, Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, was hindered from attending the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues by the former and incumbent head of DESA. Even as an ever-increasing number of news reports reveals the humanitarian crisis in Xinjiang, including physical torture and cultural genocide, China continues to downplay the violent nature of its policy while arguing that its so-called deradicalization and re-education measures render Xinjiang a safer place. Moreover, China has taken further steps to impede the work of the UN Human Rights Council by appealing to other authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Russia to rally in support of China’s oppressive rule.
Besides appealing to member states with authoritarian predispositions, China provides economic incentives in exchange for the leadership in the UN. Prior to the election of the ninth director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2019, China slashed $78 million in debt owed by the Cameroonian government whose nominated candidate coincidentally withdrew his bid afterward. Meanwhile, China failed to control and contain an outbreak of the African Swine Fever, threatening global food security by causing international transmission across Asia and Europe with millions of pigs buried alive. Nevertheless, Qu Dongyu, the Chinese candidate, was later elected as the first Chinese national to hold the post — regardless of the electoral controversy and food security crisis originating from his home country.
Qu’s success is only the tip of the iceberg. With its leadership in four of the 15 UN specialized agencies and numerous subsidiary offices led by Chinese senior officials, Chinese leadership in the UN has been safeguarding China’s national interests, disregarding what best serves the collective interest. The most well-known case is the repeated refusal of Taiwan’s attendance at the WHO and ICAO annual conferences, leaving the country’s leaders in the fields of medical science and aviation shut out from international cooperation. China’s blockade against Taiwan not only neglects the rights of Taiwanese people but also incurs losses that should have been avoidable if Taiwan could share its best practices with the world without barriers.
Most notably, as COVID-19 costs thousands of lives outside of its place of origin – China — international media now look to Taiwan’s model of disease control as the country successfully prevented mass infection despite being one of the first to report confirmed cases. It is an undeniable fact that the WHO has been spreading misleading messages. Secretary General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, for instance, repeatedly suggested that member states don’t need to impose a ban on travel from China, praised China’s belated heavy-handed measures, and downplayed the severity of the outbreak right up until it turned into a pandemic. Tedros’ inconsistency in disease control measures and reluctance to criticize China’s earlier attempts to cover up the outbreak have damaged the WHO’s professional standing, leading some critics to sarcastically rename it the Chinese Health Organization (CHO).
China’s latest bid in the UN was to nominate Wang Binying as its candidate for the director-general election of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). China’s ambition backfired as its constant violation of property rights and its opportunistic behavior in the UN provoked considerable alarm about its control over the organization behind international property rights regulations. The growing concern prompted the United States to take action, and led to the victory of Daren Tang, the Singaporean candidate backed by the U.S. But as five other UN agencies are scheduled for a change in leadership, more efforts will be required to tame China’s ambition.
When the member states voted in favor of the People’s Republic of China’s membership in the UN in 1971, one of the prevalent arguments was that a country with a population of more than 1 billion should not be left out. The sooner China was included into the international community, the earlier it would learn to play along with international norms, the argument went. Unfortunately, China’s current measures indicate otherwise. International norms are the ones being played.
A Disabled UN and the Rise of Distributional Conflicts
Although China’s collaborative behavior in the UN appears to be a role model for emerging states, it is, in fact, harming the essence of international cooperation. For international cooperation to be sustainable, international organizations need to be not only beneficial to the stakeholders but also trustworthy. Stakeholders, especially major powers, must be willing to yield short-term gains for the purpose of increasing the incentives of long-term cooperation. For instance, the United States and Japan have been top contributors to UN development projects, even though, as developed countries, they would not directly benefit from these projects.
The cornerstones of building a trustworthy partnership are professionalism and impartiality. In its 75 years of history, the UN’s mandate has, for the most part, been respected by its members owing to its operations and projects being carried out by a group of international civil servants sworn to uphold administrative neutrality, and whose judgments are founded on professional practice and the collective good of the international community (as opposed to parochial national interests).
On the contrary, China’s attempts to make the UN a tool for achieving its hegemonic ambition would erode the institution’s trustworthiness from within and render international cooperation parochial. As a consequence, China’s approach to international cooperation would defeat the UN’s purpose to settle distributional conflicts since, very soon, other stakeholders would realize that cooperation is a cloak for advancing China’s national interests.
Impartiality, justice, and universalism are the core values of the UN system. The discriminating and exclusionary political precondition that China holds has already hindered the UN from fulfilling the mission of SDGs to promote the wellbeing of all. As China’s propaganda machine starts to shift attention from the central government’s failure to contain the pandemic by questioning other countries’ role in international transmission, the UN system should continue to uphold its core values and resist becoming China’s proxy in a deliberately provoked blame game.
Tung Cheng-Chia is an Assistant Research Fellow at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation.
Dr. Alan H. Yang is Executive Director at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation.
*Corrected from the original, which erroneously said “the United States.”