As President Donald Trump announces a halt in World Health Organization funding, accusing it of kowtowing to China over the coronavirus outbreak, Beijing is building on a well-established strategy of leveraging its global standing wherever the US lets go of the wheel.
For years, Chinese nationals have been taking up positions at the head of and lower down UN agencies as the Asian powerhouse ploughs considerable resources into building on its international financial and military relationships.
China’s long game on global influence is particularly apparent in Africa, where 10 years ago the continent’s debt to the world’s number two economy was minimal.
Today, a UN official said, it stands at some $140 billion as Beijing ramps up investments through the Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi Jinping’s signature global infrastructure project.
Beijing’s overtures have placed it in a powerful position to leverage African support on various issues and at international agencies.
Led by Ethiopian Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO is accused by Washington of uncritically accepting China’s early assertions that the virus was not spread between humans and of wrongly praising Beijing’s “transparency” over the magnitude of the crisis.
“What we have seen for more than 10 years, and especially since 2012 with Xi Jinping, is a real push from Chinese diplomacy to restructure global governance,” Alice Ekman, the senior analyst in charge of the Asia portfolio at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, told AFP.
“It’s a lofty ambition since China is talking about ‘piloting’ this restructuring.”
The same phenomenon — the US withdrawing and China making its mark, but never directly — is notable at several UN agencies.
Along with its availability for an increasing number of peacekeeping missions, Beijing has become the second largest financial contributor to the UN, overtaking Japan but behind the US.
Away from the UN’s activities directed from its New York headquarters, China has wielded its financial clout in the organization’s many agencies worldwide, including UNESCO in Paris.
Washington’s retreat since 2019 from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, over alleged bias against Israel, came as China was increasing its influence to become the agency’s largest compulsory net contributor.
Beijing has a strong presence in programs for the education of women and girls, and the second highest official at UNESCO, Xing Qu, is Chinese.
“They have succeeded in finding a balance — being very present without imposing,” an official told AFP, on condition of anonymity so that they could speak frankly.
– Void –
For many UN officials across the world, the void left by the withdrawal of some of the most influential players on the international stage spells danger ahead for the organization.
“With the US not leading internationally, with Europe disappearing into itself and China pursuing its own interests, we really are in trouble,” Catia Batista, associate professor of economy at Nova University in Lisbon, told The Washington Post.
Chinese has also flexed its muscle at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) based in Montreal.
In 2019 Qu Dongyu, a former Chinese minister, became the head of the FAO, while ICAO has been co-managed since 2015 by another Chinese official, Fang Liu.
Beijing’s influence is “real and growing” at ICAO, which governs global air transport, a specialist close to the agency said.
The source said Beijing is now the second-highest financial contributor to ICAO after Washington.
Since last year Washington has suspended financial contributions to ICAO in an attempt to accelerate reform.
But while US officials use their contributions for leverage, the tactic is not part of a broader attempt to abandon the UN as a whole, the source says.
At UNESCO a similar leverage of US cash for influence has not led to revolutionary reform — but it remains to be seen how Trump’s suspension of funding will affect the WHO.
In Vienna, major Western powers have shown little interest in the UN Industrial Development Organization, a small agency which aims to promote inclusive and sustainable industrial development.
Eyeing an opportunity, China has used this apathy to use UNIDO as a stepping stone for its ascent in other UN agencies.
Another former Chinese minister, Li Yong, has been UNIDO’s director general since its establishment 2013.
As for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Washington is the lead financial contributor, ahead of China.
The US says it has not lost influence despite the pullout by Trump from the 2015 accord reached between major powers and Iran over its nuclear program.
In reality, China is now in the driving seat, with Russia and the Europeans also taking up positions of influence.
“After the election of Donald Trump, China strengthened its position as a guarantor of multilateralism,” Ekman said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic was another chance for Beijing to “invest in global governance in all directions.”
Ekman described China’s approach as a “pragmatic and global” strategy in which the WHO is “just one institution among many.”
“In the long run, China would like to see the advent of post-Western global governance, in which China would play a central role,” she added.