The recently concluded 78th session of the United Nations in New York provides proof, if more were needed, that the world is unlikely to be a better place if China ends up running it.
Like Russian president Vladimir Putin, Chinese president Xi Jinping didn’t bother to attend the annual UN gathering. He didn’t need to be there. Though the United States remains the world’s (and the UN’s) largest financier of humanitarian and development aid, China already exercises disproportionate influence within the premier global governance body.
As evidence of China’s growing clout, look no further than the Sustainable Developments Goals (SDG) summit on the UN’s sidelines. Adopted by virtually all the UN’s 193 member states back in 2015, the SDGs, in UN parlance, are a lofty list of 17 goals and 169 specific targets aimed at intensifying efforts to end poverty, protect the planet, build quality education systems, and enhance human rights and dignity by 2030.
One can argue that the SDGs initiative was always overly ambitious, poorly timed, or just unlucky. Progress has been hamstrung by what one senior American diplomat called a “perfect storm of global crises”—multiple wars, climate catastrophes, and the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic and its lingering effects.
As Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, told Council on Foreign Relations members late last week, substantial progress has been made on only 12 percent of the goals. And as the UN itself admits, 37 percent of the goals have either seen “no movement or have regressed below the starting line.”
“There is no plan B,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres, acknowledging his members’ failure to match their funding commitments with their declarations. Though Guterres didn’t single out China, consider the numbers. In 2021, the U.S. provided nearly $4 billion to the UN World Food Programme. China provided less than $27 million. That same year, Washington gave UNICEF, which focuses on helping children, nearly $1 billion. China provided less than $3 million. In 2019, the U.S. accounted for 22 percent of the UN’s budget—or about $675 million. China provided about $368 million, or 12 percent.
China, the world’s second-largest economy, claims that it supports the SDGs through its Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi’s decade-old, $1 trillion program to gain military and economic access to the world’s commodities by lending and investing in infrastructure development. It has largely used the UN to advance its own national security interests, often at the expense of the world’s poorest nations and of Taiwan, which it consistently claims as its own.
While Chinese contributions to UN agencies have increased in recent years, Beijing’s giving is largely aimed at maximizing its clout within them. The strategy has worked well. As of 2020, China headed four of the UN’s 15 principal specialized agencies and had deputies in nine other agencies.
Though China, unlike other donors, resists making voluntary contributions to the UN, it has given $20 million a year since 2016 to the UN’s Peace and Development Fund. “But the money is mostly used to promote China’s Belt and Road Initiative,” said Matthew Pottinger, former President Donald Trump’s top Asia official.
“The money has also been used to buy influence with the UN secretary-general’s office and UN agencies,” said Kelley Currie, a former U.S. deputy ambassador to the UN. “It’s basically a slush fund,” she added, a charge the UN secretary-general’s office denies.
“At very least, the U.S. should insist that China be more transparent about its lending and UN activities,” Pottinger said.
Though the U.S. is by far the world’s largest global health donor (health being the focus of SDG 3), China effectively controls the UN’s World Health Organization. The WHO’s disgraceful deference to Beijing and unquestioning acceptance of China’s lies and suppression of information about Covid helped fuel the global pandemic and undermined the agency’s credibility. China has paid little price for this manipulation of what was once a highly regarded organization.
“China now broadly seeks to reform the UN system from within through its ‘shared future’ global governance vision—an agenda that downplays universal values in favor of championing the primacy of states,” concludes a recent report by the Lowy Institute, a prominent Australian think tank.
High on China’s list of UN priorities is freezing out Taiwan. Through secret agreements with UN agencies and embedding Chinese nationals within UN staff, China has managed to restrict Taiwan’s participation at the UN, even at this year’s General Assembly. Its main vehicle has been a misinterpretation of General Assembly Resolution 2758, which, in 1971, granted representation at the UN to the People’s Republic of China rather than the Republic of China. Though the resolution does not mention Taiwan or determine Taiwan’s sovereignty or status, China has used it to bar Taiwanese from attending the World Health Assembly or participating in the International Civil Aviation Organization. Beijing is now threatening to bar NGOs and other independent groups from the UN if they refuse to identify Taiwan as a “province of China.” Recently, some Taiwanese passport holders have been blocked from even entering UN headquarters.
While former President Donald Trump responded to similar Chinese provocations by withdrawing from the WHO, publicly chastising the organization, and downgrading its agencies’ priority in U.S. government affairs, the Biden administration has been tentatively pushing back on Chinese influence within the organization. Asked why she had publicly highlighted China’s paltry contributions to the SDGs, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield replied that she was putting China’s “stark numbers in front of the world” to “encourage China to do more and to pay more.” That such public browbeating would alter Chinese giving, priorities, or policies, however, seems as unlikely as ever.
Photo by Liu Guanguan/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images