If asked in which international arena the great power conflict over global order has become most salient in recent years, most would probably point to the United Nations Human Rights Council or the Security Council. In contrast, the U.N.’s development cooperation has so far been spared diplomatic conflicts of similar intensity. There have been Chinese efforts to bring the U.N. aboard its Belt and Road Initiative, but by and large, such efforts comprised advertising and lobbying only and some were quietly scaled back when Western states voiced concerns.
Still, China increasingly claims a front-row seat in global development cooperation. In its 2021 white paper on international development cooperation, the Chinese government presents itself as a provider of global goods. It also commits itself to U.N. multilateralism. At the same time, China has become more articulate about “building international relations of a new type” which will be less dominated by Western powers and norms and give greater voice to developing states.
The U.N.’s development pillar has a key role to play in this context. The U.N. can be a vehicle for spreading Chinese expertise, building diplomatic relations, and bestowing legitimacy to China’s more prominent role as a global leader. In the field of human rights, China is on the defensive globally; in sustainable development, it can build something based on its domestic success. It, therefore, was a major success when in 2019 a Chinese candidate, Qu Dongyu, was elected director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a U.N. specialized agency with the mandate to lead international efforts on food security. Intense diplomatic support by the Chinese leadership was deployed to make Qu’s candidacy successful. We should note that China has the world’s largest agricultural sector, having to feed a population of 1.4 billion. The FAO is also culturally close to the global South, whereas OECD countries account for approximately three-quarters of overall financial contributions to the FAO.
The FAO was off to a good start under Qu’s leadership. Considered a professionally qualified leader, he conducted a management reform and introduced major policy innovations, in particular, the Hand-in-Hand initiative and a new strategy on climate change. Western member states were ready to work with Qu. Yet three years into Qu’s tenure, a worrisome, multi-pronged diplomatic brawl has erupted between FAO leadership and Western members, highlighting the challenging path for China toward a new type of international relations.
The first point of contention arose from Qu’s election. According to diplomatic sources, China pressured developing countries to provide evidence of how they had voted. Western states had already raised concern about digital devices during the voting process prior to the procedure, worried that they would render outside monitoring and potential interference more likely. Such concerns are not baseless. There have been reports about China exerting robust pressure in the U.N. on developing states that do not respond to Chinese offers of harmonious and mutually beneficial relationships.
To safeguard the secret ballot (which is enshrined in the FAO constitution) and the integrity of future elections, Western states then initiated a voluntary code of conduct for voting. They also requested a review of the rules and best practices in the wider U.N. system. In the World Health Organization, for instance, states vote in front of the plenum, which makes hidden use of electronic devices impossible. For the FAO, however, China and like-minded states rejected the relevance of such best practices and opposed stricter rules on the secrecy of ballots, arguing that it should be the sovereign right of states to photograph their ballot papers.
Additional conflicts with a long trail of tense back and forth between Western states and the FAO have since unfolded on matters concerning oversight and accountability. The U.N.’s Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) is an independent oversight body that conducts system-wide reviews but also management reviews of individual U.N. entities. With the last such review of FAO being two decades old, Qu had initially agreed for the JIU to review the FAO in early 2020. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and caused a delay. “At this point, the Organization [FAO] realized that, regretfully, the [review] could not meet the original purpose agreed in 2019, namely to provide an independent lens at the beginning of the transition process.”
In the meantime, the JIU had made it clear that it wanted to focus its appraisal on Qu’s reforms. Qu requested a delay until 2024 when he would either be out of office or already well into his second term. The JIU immediately suspended the inspection (which had already begun) and used its annual report to the U.N. General Assembly to “[draw] the attention of the legislative organs” to this highly unusual event. At the most recent FAO Council meeting, member states then doubled down and requested the FAO – in language equally unusual in its commanding tone – “to communicate in writing its willingness” to reschedule the review “at the earliest convenience of the Unit.”
Oversight issues are at the heart of the FAO’s focus on big data. Innovation in this area has been identified by Chinese President Xi Jinping as critical to the global governance of sustainable development (while domestically, big data plays a role in the surveillance of its citizens). There are several recent U.N.-Chinese collaborations on big data, one of them with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (another U.N. entity directed by a Chinese official). At the FAO, the new Hand-in-Hand geospatial platform is one of Qu’s key initiatives. It integrates a range of previously separate thematic databases. Senior FAO positions dealing with data-related processes are now held by Chinese officials.
Western states have endorsed the FAO’s new focus on data management but complain that the organization has since kept them at arm’s length. In 2021, a European Union delegate stated, “We are surprised to see that the Data Lab of the HiH [Hand-in-Hand] Initiative is monitoring ‘social unrest’ in the world. We request clarification from the Management as this, in our view, exceeds the FAO mandate.” In response, FAO management rejected “the idea of bringing an intergovernmental entity towards the Geo-Spatial Platform” for more direct oversight and asserted, “We do not believe there is a need [for that] because all the data published there is data that follows all the protocols of the UN.”
The war in Ukraine has added yet another layer to the diplomatic dispute surrounding the FAO in recent years. Western states have raised alarms about what they perceived as the FAO’s unwillingness to take a stand on the implications of the war for global food security, and on the question of Russia’s aggression. According to leaked documents, FAO management blocked the publication of an analysis that could have hurt China’s interests in buying corn on the world market before a price hike was expected to set in.
In return, Western states requested a special council meeting (China voted against the request) and got a decision, sponsored by 80 member states, passed that requested the FAO “to leverage FAO’s role as a knowledge institution to closely monitor the implications on world food security,” condemned the “aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine,” and pointed out “its negative impact driving increased food insecurity globally.” Western states had rallied G77 states by demarches; China allegedly sent counter-demarches, though apparently with less success. China swiftly condemned what it cast as a “politicization of [the FAO’s] work” and urged the organization to keep its “neutrality as a technical platform.”
In sum, it is crucial to consider that this conflict is not only about mitigating the food-related repercussion of the war in Ukraine. It is also a struggle over the global narratives of who ultimately caused the food crisis: Russia’s invasion or subsequent Western sanctions on Russia and its handful of allies.
Being caught between geopolitical camps and the perception of a certain instrumentalization by China have arguably resulted in some marginalization of the FAO. When U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres set up a “Global Crisis Response Group” in March, the workstream on food was – to the surprise of many – not entrusted to the FAO but to the executive director of the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP). With the joint G-7 and World Bank Global Alliance for Food Security, launched in May 2022, the political momentum has shifted to a forum dominated by Western member states.
These ongoing quarrels notwithstanding, one should use caution when gauging to what extent the Chinese approach to multilateralism is turning more combative. In other parts of the U.N. system where China is less exposed and Chinese national interests are less directly involved, the country is often seen as a constructive player. A challenge remains, however: Wherever China aspires to a role in global governance, it needs to reduce the influence of Western states to create space for itself. If stakes are high and returns seem immediate, the Chinese government appears to be willing to violate accountability and other principles of U.N. multilateralism, such as consensus seeking and the neutrality of the international civil servant.
Western governments have become more sensitive about China’s role in the FAO but remain hesitant to escalate matters, at least for now. There is an awareness among Western diplomats that China deserves a greater role at the U.N.; that new intellectual currents should be welcome; and that some of China’s problematic power practices are not dissimilar from expressions of Western influence. Still, for most Western governments, damaging established principles of U.N. multilateralism constitutes a red line.
In the end, governments in the global South will decide with whom to align. Thus far, most of them are reluctant to join sides. They welcome a counterweight to Western dominance in U.N. multilateralism, but they are also wary about China repeating the kind of power politics they have come to loathe.