China’s Campaign for Diplomatic Influence Gains Clout

Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov, Drew Hinshaw, and Kate O’Keeffe published an extensive piece about China’s long effort to gain control over key bodies at the United Nations. As the United States pulls back from multilateral organizations, Chinese representatives have come to lead four of the fifteen specialized U.N. agencies and groups:

The Trump administration views the U.N. system as divided into parts that Washington should fight to fix and those that are beyond repair, U.S. officials said. In July, the administration began withdrawing from the World Health Organization, saying the U.N. agency’s deference to China at the outset of the pandemic allowed the virus to spread.

Many U.S. allies say that abandoning the field by leaving organizations like the WHO offers China a strategic gift. Their concerns have been heightened in recent months as Beijing chastised democratic countries for speaking out on Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and engaged in deadly border clashes with India.

[…] Out of the U.N.’s 15 specialized agencies and groups, Chinese representatives lead four, beating Western-backed candidates last year for the top slot of the Food and Agriculture Organization. Only a concerted campaign in March by the U.S. and partners defeated a Chinese effort to take over the leadership of a fifth body, the World Intellectual Property Organization, known as WIPO. No other nation has its citizens running more than one U.N. agency.

Earlier victories put Beijing in position to shape international norms and standards, notably with air travel under the Chinese-led International Civil Aviation Organization. The Chinese secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, who took his post in 2015, has backed Huawei Technologies Co. in its fight with the U.S., and pushed for a new internet protocol that Western governments say would allow more surveillance and censorship. [Source]

Reckoning with China’s newfound diplomatic might, many experts have written about its implications for the United States and the West. Several argue that China’s values are in direct conflict with those espoused by the United Nations. In an article for Project Sinopsis previously published at CDT, Andrea Worden wrote that the Belt and Road Initiative posed a direct threat to the U.N.’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), describing the former as Beijing’s ‘panacea’ to the challenges of the latter:

In adopting the Agenda, States “envisage a world of universal respect for human rights and human dignity, the rule of law, justice, equality and non-discrimination,” as well as a “just, equitable, tolerant, open and socially inclusive world in which the needs of the most vulnerable are met” (para. 8).

[…] As Sinopsis and Jichang Lulu explained in their June 2018 article on CCP influence operations targeting the U.N., the PRC has used a combination of tactics —- including discourse engineering, political and economic influence, and bribery —-to position its Belt and Road Initiative as the panacea to many of the challenges faced by the 2030 Agenda, with the ultimate aim of obtaining the U.N.’s imprimatur for Xi Jinping’s global foreign policy strategy and vision.

Over the past few years, PRC officials and allies at the U.N. have promoted the purported synergies between the BRI and sustainable development generally, and after 2015, the 2030 Agenda specifically, often using Xiist tropes such as “win-win cooperation” and “community of shared future for humankind” (人类命运共同体). In June 2018, the PRC’s ambassador to the U.N., Ma Zhaoxu (马朝旭), co-hosted a high-level forum on the BRI and the 2030 Agenda, during which he said: “The BRI and the 2030 Agenda resonate with and reinforce each other. Together, they promote the cause of international cooperation for development.” Ambassador Ma made no mention of civil society or human rights, except for the right to development, suggesting that it was the only right that really mattered to the 2030 Agenda: “The BRI is aligned with the 2030 Agenda, which emphasizes voluntarism and respect for countries’ sovereignty and right of development.” [Source]

In a report for Brookings last month, Human Rights Watch’s China director Sophie Richardson warned that China’s influence within one U.N. body might affect proceedings in others:

Beijing also seeks to ensure that discussions about human rights more broadly take place only through the human rights bodies in Geneva, and not other U.N. bodies, particularly the Security Council. China contends that only the HRC has a mandate to examine them — a convenient way of trying to limit discussions even on the gravest atrocities. [Source]

At the beginning of this month, over 300 NGOs called for an investigation by the U.N. body into violations caused by its council member.

Still, others have argued that China’s engagement with the U.N. is arguably preferable to the alternative, which is if it created a competing body to the U.N.’s specialized groups and committess. In another report released last month, Brookings fellow Jeffrey Feltman wrote:

[… P]erhaps we should welcome China’s desire for increasing influence in the U.N. system as preferable to Beijing-designed alternatives that exclude or disadvantage the United States. Having China operate within a long-established system established under U.S. leadership gives us the equivalent of a home field advantage. And there are certainly areas where Beijing and Washington might find common interests — China, for example, is far more attentive to budgetary issues than it was when its assessed contributions were insignificant. We also might be able to appeal to China’s interests in access for markets, investment opportunities, and natural resources, which are more readily realized in times of peace, security, and stability. This differs from Russia’s exploitation of instability in places such as Ukraine, Syria, and Libya. [Source]

But the challenge of Beijing’s growing diplomatic assertiveness has not been limited to its behavior within the United Nations. Beyond the U.N., there has been a sustained increase in activity that the Australian Strategic Policy Initiative has termed “coercive diplomacy.” Under ASPI’s typology, this kind of diplomacy includes actions ranging from state-issued threats to trade and tourism restrictions, and more serious measures such as popular boycotts and the arbitrary detention or execution of foreign citizens. In a report published at the beginning of September, ASPI wrote about the growing prevalence of such behavior:

Every country is concerned about protecting its interests and playing to its strengths. Larger states, such as the US and Russia, have applied pressure to smaller states to get what they want with varying levels of success. Nevertheless, the CCP’s approach is unique in that it rarely employs traditional methods of coercive diplomacy, which are regulated through the state’s official capacity. The CCP is instead arbitrarily imposing measures without officially acknowledging the link between the measures taken and the CCP’s interests, which allows for greater flexibility in escalating or de-escalating situations with less accountability and international oversight. This non-traditional type of coercive diplomacy therefore requires a very different set of policy tools and responses.

This research has documented 152 instances of CCP coercive diplomacy between 2010 and 2020. […] Of those cases, 100 targeted foreign governments, while the remaining 52 cases targeted specific companies. [Source]


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