On 30 January, the World Health Organisation, after being under tremendous pressure for a week, declared the outbreak of the novel coronavirus as a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC).
Addressing the media, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus lauded China for its efforts to contain the virus and encourage global cooperation to combat the spread.
Citing the vulnerability of countries with poor health infrastructure, Tedros stated that the declaration was to ensure the outbreak remains limited to China.
The declaration came 15 days after WHO confirmed there was no evidence for human-to-human transmission.
A month later, when the world had more than 85,000 cases with more than 79,000 in China itself, WHO advised against restricting air travel to China while continuing to praise President Xi Jinping’s government’s efforts in ‘slowing down’ the virus spread.
Less than 45-days after the briefing, there are 1.8 million cases across the world and more than 108,000 fatalities. More than 530,000 cases have come from the United States alone. President Donald Trump, in his recent briefings, has accused the Tedros-led WHO of being ‘China-centric’ and failing to alert nations in the West about the gravity of the situation.
Trump has also threatened to put a hold on US’ funding to the WHO once the outbreak is contained. Addressing the media, Trump stated that even when the US had been giving more money than China to the WHO, the actions of the WHO felt very China-centric.
Already, in their recent budget proposal in February, the Trump administration proposed to cut funding to the WHO to around $57 million from more than $122 million.
Irrespective of the blunders committed by the Trump administration in containing the outbreak, the President is right about WHO being China-centric in the recent weeks.
However, the WHO is not the only organisation that has been influenced by China.
Slow and Steady: China’s Growing Prowess Within The United Nations
For years now, China has been infiltrating many UN institutions and has flexed its economic muscle to gain leverage in policymaking and issues of geopolitical importance.
The influence has taken many forms, ranging from direct action to indirect monetary steps via the Belt-Road Initiative (BRI).
China’s influence has expanded across critical institutions like the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), where since 2007, it has vetoed action of the UNSC against Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.
The Chinese influence in the peacekeeping operations has grown, with the number of personnel increasing from mere 52 in May 2000 to 2534 in May 2019, more than the combined personnel tally of the other four members of the UNSC, which include the US, United Kingdom, France, and Russia.
China’s share of the UN regular budget has increased from a mere 0.9 per cent in 2000 to more than 12 per cent in 2019.
In the UN's peacekeeping assessment, China’s share has increased to 15.2 per cent in 2019 from 1.9 per cent in 2001.
However, when compared to the US, China’s regular budget and peacekeeping assessment were 45 per cent less.
In 2017, while China’s contributions totalled $1.4 billion ($209 million in voluntary donations), the US contributed $10.5 billion ($6.5 billion in voluntary contributions).
Yet, China’s contributions are given more importance because the US share has been static for years now, thus letting members take it for granted, as Trump pointed out in the case of WHO.
One At A Time: A Swift Takeover Of Specialised UN Agencies
There has been a significant increase in Chinese leadership across UN agencies as well. As of today, China dominates four of the 15 UN-specialised agencies.
These include the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), International Telecommunication Union (ITU), and United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO).
Meanwhile, there is only one US national heading 1 of the 15 agencies — the World Bank.
Interestingly, Chinese nationals only make up for 1.06 per cent of the total UN system staff, disproportionate to its contribution and economic clout.
There are three other agencies led by nationals from Ethiopia (WHO), Togo (IFAD: International Fund for Agricultural Development), and Kenya (UPU: Universal Postal Union). China exerts a significant influence on these nations by virtue of the BRI.
Not just WHO, heads of other agencies have been vocal in their praise for the Chinese leadership.
In 2019, Australia’s Francis Gurry, heading the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) spoke highly of China’s commitment towards intellectual property (no pun intended).
In March 2020, China’s bid to put its national as the Director-General of WIPO was thwarted by Singapore’s Daren Tang, who is set to take over later this year.
Had the bid been successful, China would have been heading one-third of the UN's specialised agencies.
The Chinese government has also used its authority to arm-twist leaders of these agencies.
Former UN Under-Secretary-General, Wu Hongbo, of the UNDESA (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs) admitted that his nationality warranted him to push China’s interests.
He confessed using his authority to remove an activist from Xinjiang from a seminar that was being held in the UN premises.
China has also used its authority to ensure that Taiwan did not get to attend ICAO meetings even though the nation is often touted as the gateway to East Asia.
In 2018, China arrested the Interpol President, Meng Hongwei, charging him with abuse of power as he refused to toe the party line.
Though Interpol is not a part of the UN system, the arrest proved how China’s government did not shy away from punishing heads of prominent international organisations if they failed to act in the nation’s interests.
Yet, to date, no action has been taken against China by Interpol or its members.
Interestingly, they have used the same influence to get people to withdraw from contesting leadership positions for UN agencies.
In 2019, China waived off $78.4 million worth of debt owned by Cameroon to get its candidate to withdraw from the FAO leadership race.
Today, a Chinese national heads FAO.
However, if there is one place where China’s clout and influence have grown exponentially, it’s the United Nations Humans Rights Council (UNHRC).
China: The Next Global Authority On Human Rights
Since the global political ascendancy of Jinping, China’s posture has changed from defensive to the offensive on the subject of human rights. The focus is twofold — one to shield criticism of its treatment of more than 5 million Uighur Muslims back home, and two, to put forward an agenda that puts sovereignty before human rights.
Collaborating with Russia, China, in 2018, succeeded in thwarting the speech of the high commissioner (backed by the US) for human rights at the UNSC. Also, the two countries have been vocal about reducing the funding for human rights posts and missions.
China, in 2016, tried to move an amendment which gave the state power over groups and people working for human rights. The amendment, where India voted yes along with Russia, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, did not garner enough support.
However, In 2017, China moved another amendment that promoted development over human rights. The resolution subjected human rights to ‘people-centered development’, thus proposing hostile take over of groups working towards human rights if they interfered with the interests of the states.
The resolution was passed successfully, thus further legitimising the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China. Along with India, China gained support from countries of Africa and Latin America. This was China’s first independent resolution before the UNHRC.
China’s second independent resolution came in 2018, which was to promote mutually beneficial cooperation between member states in the field of human rights. The objective was to move beyond the conventional means of ‘naming and shaming’ member states and instead opt for a state-led peer-review process.
This was China’s attempt at dodging any state criticism to its domestic abuse of human rights. The resolution passed with only one member voting against it — the US.
China followed this with a few unsuccessful resolutions that would have given member states great autonomy over the transactions of non-governmental organisations working towards human rights.
The key countries rejecting the resolution were from the European Union.
However, the only country rivalling China in terms of influence has left the UNHRC. In June 2018, the Trump administration declared the US was leaving the heavily politicised and inefficient UNHRC.
This single move will now allow China to rework the rules of the UNHRC in its favour. Given China’s BRI could, in the future, amount to an abuse of human rights in debt-trapped nations of Africa and Latin America and of citizens back home, the exit of the US will enhance the Chinese sphere of influence.
With time, the European resistance will either fade away or be bought.
China: Caretaker of the United Nations’ Orphans
The influence within the UN is not restricted to agencies of critical issues alone but also those often termed as ‘orphaned agencies’. They are termed so because of the lack of attention they now received from nations in the West and their diminishing importance.
However, China, flexing its economic muscle, is making these agencies great again.
Firstly, UNDESA, also referred to as the think tank of the UN, and responsible for assisting various other UN agencies with an economic understanding of the member states, is now known as the Chinese enterprise.
Headed by Liu Zhenmin since 2017, a former Vice-President for foreign affairs of China, the agency is now working in close collaboration with various lobbies of the BRI.
With a number of Chinese workers, the agency, in one of its roles as the advisor to the UN Secretary-General, is exerting its influence to further China’s BRI pursuits.
Secondly, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), responsible for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, is now being influenced by the Chinese even though it has a limited number of works and a small share of the funding.
Linking many of the BRI’s objectives in countries of Africa and Latin America to SDGs, China is using the agency to promote the BRI. Interestingly, UNDP was the first international organisation to sign an MoU with Chinese government for BRI implementation.
Three, the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), tasked with the promotion of industrialisation and capacity building by focusing on small and medium companies through sustainable development has also come under the Chinese clout.
This has enabled China to push further its technologies in countries of Africa and Latin America, thus further alienating them from the West.
Lastly, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). From being blamed for derailing the Copenhagen summit in 2009, China went on to play a major role in the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
Given China is the largest emitter in absolute numbers, and has the biggest emerging industry for renewable energy, China is expected to usher policies that further its exports and domestic emissions.
In late 2019, the US began its formal withdrawal from the agreement.
China, in the context of the UNSC, has refused to acknowledge the security concerns stemming from climate change. This is due to the investments undertaken under the BRI which may have an adverse effect on the ecological systems in Africa and the opportunities China sees at the North and South Pole, where it intends to build the first permanent airport.
China’s Idea Of Surveillance For The Free World
Before Covid-19 took over the world, China was busy pushing Huawei, the company with the most 5G patents in the world, into countries of Europe and Asia. While India permitted Huawei trials, the United Kingdom gave the company ahead, much to the dismay of the Oval Office.
Turns out, China is using the UN too as a pedestal to globalise its technology standards, replacing the decades-old system of the US.
In 2016-17, Chinese sent a large delegation to the ITU summit, stating its intentions to define the international standards for the next generation of mobile networks — 5G. While China was largely absent when standards for 3G and 4G were designed, the Jinping administration is now using its clout in the UN to further its domestic companies.
The buck does not stop at 5G. As per a report in the Financial Times in late 2019, China was pushing its tech firms using the UN clout to set global standards for facial recognition and video monitoring.
Given the standards defined by the ITU in Geneva are implemented across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, China’s push to define the standards aligned with its indigenous technology further complements its global pursuits.
The UN is playing along as well. Last month, the office of the UN-Secretary General stated that Tencent, one of the biggest conglomerates in China, had been signed to supply video conferencing and other digital tools for celebrating the 75th anniversary of the UN.
A Chinese Takeover Of The United Nations
The foundations for the UN and its agencies were laid by the events of the Second World War. Today, as the US under Trump is opting for an ‘America-first’ policy and Europe is all set for a long economic winter due to the Covid-19 outbreak, the stage is set for China to use the agencies of the UN and its BRI to assert itself globally.
However, while the US-led international order under the UN embraced the founding principles of liberalism and democracy of the West, a post-Covid-19 UN will find itself moulded to suit the interests of the Chinese, as seen in the case of WHO.
In the long run, a heavily influenced UN, weakened by the US exit, will translate into another gain for China from the Covid-19 outbreak. The UN, as we know it today, could be forever lost.
Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_
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