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How China is conquering international organizations, one vote at a time



When China curtailed political freedoms in Hong Kong this summer, two rival statements circulated to the UN Human Rights Council. One, drafted by Cuba and praising Beijing’s move, won the support of 53 nations. Another, released by the UK and expressing concern, secured 27 supporters.

China’s show of strength was just the latest diplomatic triumph of Beijing’s drive to steer the system of international organizations in its direction. As the Trump administration withdrew from many parts of the multilateral order established after World War II, China has emerged as the main beneficiary, stepping up a methodical and decades-long campaign.

Beijing is pushing its public employees, or those of customers and partners, to the helm of the United Nations institutions that set global standards for air travel, telecommunications and agriculture. Gaining influence at the United Nations allows China to stifle international scrutiny of its behavior at home and abroad. In March, Beijing won a seat on a five-member jury that selects UN rapporteurs on human rights violations, officials who used to target Beijing for imprisoning more than a million Uighurs in so-called re-education camps in China. Xinjiang.

Washington recently attempted to thwart this effort at the United Nations by flattering and courting countries around the world. Such efforts, hampered by damaged relationships with partners and allies, have so far had little impact.

China̵

7;s success raises an enigma for the United States and its allies. After the fall of the Soviet Union, these nations expected the United Nations to become a mechanism for promoting democracy and human rights. Now, in a dynamic that is increasingly reminiscent of the Cold War, Beijing’s influence at the United Nations instead helps the Chinese Communist Party legitimize its claim to be a superior alternative to Western democracies.

“China feels that this is ‘our’ time and we need to take control of these bodies,” said Ashok Malik, senior political advisor to India’s foreign ministry. “If you control the important levers of these institutions, you influence the rules, you influence the ways of thinking, you influence international politics, you inject your way of thinking”.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, addressing the UN General Assembly this month, called for the organization to play a “central role in international affairs”, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic. “The global governance system should adapt to evolving global political and economic dynamics,” he added, alluding to China’s growing weight and its perceptions of a US decline.

The Trump administration sees the UN system as divided into parts that Washington would have to fight to repair and into parts that are irreparable, US officials said. In July, the administration began withdrawing from the World Health Organization, saying the UN agency’s deference to China at the start of the pandemic allowed the virus to spread.

Many US allies say leaving the field by leaving organizations like the WHO offers China a strategic gift. Their concerns have increased in recent months as Beijing berates democratic countries for talking about Hong Kong and Xinjiang and engaged in deadly clashes on the border with India.

“The United States is withdrawing from multilateralism much to our chagrin, and the Chinese are moving out,” said Hans Blix, a former Swedish diplomat who chaired the United Nations arms inspection program in Iraq.

Washington had no say in selecting human rights speakers in March or in dueling statements on Hong Kong: the Trump administration stepped down from the UN Human Rights Council in 2018, citing one-sided criticism of Israel. The following year he also left the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization on similar issues.

Empty seats reserved for the United States in Geneva shortly after the Trump administration announced in 2018 that it was withdrawing from the UN Human Rights Council.


Photo:

denis balibouse / Reuters

Those decisions overlapped with tensions over trade, military spending, and other longstanding issues that have created a wedge between the United States and its traditional allies in Europe and Asia.

For Beijing, such divisions and the US withdrawal from the multilateral order represented an opportunity, said Lanxin Xiang, director of the Center of One Belt and One Road Studies in Shanghai: “If this is your voluntary withdrawal, not us. that we are pushing you away, filling in the void should not be considered a provocative action. “

Of the 15 UN agencies and specialist groups, Chinese representatives lead four, beating Western-backed candidates for the top position of the Food and Agriculture Organization last year. Only a concerted campaign by the United States and partners in March defeated a Chinese effort to take the lead of a fifth body, the World Intellectual Property Organization, known as WIPO. No other nation has its citizens running more than one United Nations agency.

China expands global influence

Beijing has secured seats at the helm of the United Nations institutions that set standards for air travel, telecommunications and agriculture.

China heads four of the 15 agencies or groups affiliated with the United Nations * and the United Nations that collectively function as the machine of the United Nations system.

Organization of Food and Agriculture

International Civil Aviation Organization

International Telecommunication Union

United Nations Industrial Development Organization

China heads four of the 15 agencies or groups affiliated with the United Nations * and the United Nations that collectively function as the machine of the United Nations system.

Organization of Food and Agriculture

International Civil Aviation Organization

International Telecommunication Union

United Nations Industrial Development Organization

China heads four of the 15 agencies or groups affiliated with the United Nations * and the United Nations that collectively function as the machine of the United Nations system.

Organization of Food and Agriculture

International Civil Aviation Organization

International Telecommunication Union

United Nations Industrial Development Organization

China heads four of the 15 agencies or groups affiliated with the United Nations * and the United Nations that collectively function as the machine of the United Nations system.

Organization of Food and Agriculture

International Civil Aviation Organization

International Telecommunication Union

United Nations Industrial

Development organization

Early victories enabled Beijing to shape international norms and standards, particularly with air travel under the China-led International Civil Aviation Organization. China’s Secretary General of the International Telecommunications Union, who took office in 2015, has supported Huawei Technologies Co. in its fight with the United States and pushed for a new Internet protocol that Western governments say would allow for greater surveillance and censorship.

About 30 UN agencies and institutions have signed memoranda in support of China’s Belt and Road infrastructure project, including the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, which has been under Chinese leadership since 2013. As a result, China can submit its state-run Belt and Road projects, which employ mainly Chinese companies and often leave poor countries in debt, as UN-approved benign assistance.

“China has managed to make the United Nations more Chinese,” said Moritz Rudolf, founder of Eurasia Bridges, a German consulting firm studying Belt and Road. “It’s systematic.”

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China has had its problems: After placing one of its top law enforcement officials as Interpol president, it arrested him in 2018 and later convicted him on corruption charges, pointing out how Chinese officials lending service in international organizations remain under the control of Beijing.

Chinese leaders say his goals at the UN are altruistic and that he has set a global example for tackling the coronavirus pandemic.

The UN advance cost relatively little. Although China is the world’s second largest economy, it often pays discounted rates as a so-called developing nation. In 2018, it contributed $ 1.3 billion to the United Nations system, a fraction of the United States’ $ 10 billion annual commitment.

Instead, China has leveraged loans and other aid to dozens of developing countries in Africa, the Pacific and elsewhere to build electoral blocs and defeat West-backed candidates and proposals at the United Nations.

“Unfortunately, there is a real threat that China will use multilateral institutions to promote its initiatives and values ​​against the values ​​of the United States,” said Senator Todd Young (R., Ind.), Who last year introduced a bill to investigate Beijing’s influence.

Pedestrians in Beijing passing a video link to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the United Nations.


Photo:

greg baker / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

Split decision

Last year, member states of the Food and Agriculture Organization met in Rome to select a replacement for the agency’s outgoing director general. China has appointed Qu Dongyu, its deputy minister of agriculture.

Beijing sought the support of the developing world. In Uganda, Chinese diplomats met at President Yoweri Museveni’s ranch and pledged to build a $ 25 million beef slaughterhouse and textile factory if his government backed Mr. Qu.

Cameroon presented economist Médi Moungui, a candidate with the potential to garner support in West Africa. When China cleared $ 78 million of overdue debt owed by Cameroon, Mr. Moungui suddenly withdrew. Neither Cameroon officials nor Mr. Moungui responded to requests for comment.

The United States and Europe, meanwhile, were at odds. Europe supported the French agricultural engineer Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle. The United States supported Davit Kirvalidze, a former minister of agriculture of the Republic of Georgia.

China sent a delegation of 80 to 100 people to the Rome rally, compared to a typical delegation of a dozen or so, US officials said. Chinese delegates brought high-powered telephoto lenses to the vote and filmed what was supposed to be a secret ballot. In some cases, they asked representatives from other countries to take photos of their cards as evidence that they had supported Mr. Qu, US and European officials said. The Chinese missions in Rome and Geneva did not respond to requests for comment.

With the democracies divided, Mr. Qu has achieved a lopsided victory. “I am very grateful to my homeland,” he said after his victory.

Qu Dongyu, Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, speaking in Rome last fall.


Photo:

alessandro di meo / Shutterstock

Gérard Araud, who previously served as France’s ambassador to Washington and a UN envoy, said China is doing what the United States did decades ago: offering gifts to countries or twisting their arms.

“China does it now. He does it brutally, but there’s nothing abnormal about that, “Araud said.” The fault is not with the winners. The fault is with those who lose. “

Wang Huiyao, adviser to the Chinese State Council and head of the think tank Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, said the lobbying for Mr. Qu was successful because “agricultural China has done very well, and the world has done so. recognized “.

Mr. Qu’s victory proved to be a wake-up call for the United States and its allies. In November last year, President Trump’s National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien traveled to New York to meet UN permanent representatives from Europe, Japan and other democracies, proposing a common front against China.

The European response, summarized by a person familiar with the meeting: Sure, but where have you been so far?

European officials said they shared US concerns about China, but viewed the competition differently. For the United States, China is a rival seeking to dethrone America as the world’s pre-eminent power. For Europeans, China is a danger because Beijing seeks to overturn the rules-based international order, which they say Trump is also threatening to do.

United States

Earlier this year, the US, European nations and partners like India put rivalries aside and together opposed China’s offer to lead WIPO, the Geneva-based agency that protects copyrights, patents and trademarks across borders.

China overtook the United States last year as the leading source of international patents filed with WIPO, largely because international investors like to file from China, where rates are cheaper and where locally issued patents offer more protection. .

The American message against Beijing in the race for WIPO was aimed. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has more than 1,000 open investigations into actual and attempted technology thefts by individuals and entities related to China. “We couldn’t afford to have a serial intellectual property violator running the World Intellectual Property Organization,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a written statement.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a press conference last month at the United Nations headquarters in New York.


Photo:

mike segar / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

US officials focused on setting the rules for the election, hoping to avoid the kind of aggressive measures China used in Rome. The United States got support to limit the number of delegates in the voting room and ensure voting privacy.

The race started with 10 competitors. Washington, convinced that only a developing country could win, convinced Japan and some others to withdraw early in the campaign and support a Singapore candidate. Although the city-state is one of the most prosperous nations in the world, it is grouped with mostly developing countries under the rules of the United Nations. Other withdrawals left Singapore’s Daren Tang and China’s Wang Binying as the two in the lead.

Before the March 4 vote, China complained that the United States was bullying smaller nations. Washington engaged in “immoral behavior,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said, trying to defeat Ms. Wang through threats and blackmail.

On the day of the vote, the United States sent two delegations. One was a team of six who worked in the polling room with connections to Geneva-based diplomats. Another was made up of high-level ambassadors and senior officials who campaigned outside. The goal was to keep the elections short and not give Beijing time to exert diplomatic pressure on countries overnight. The tactic worked.

When the votes were cast, Mr. Tang from Singapore overtook Ms. Wang in the first round and won an absolute majority in the second.

Some delegates were surprised by the tensions. “It was like two elephants fighting,” said one of the candidates who withdrew.

Write to Yaroslav Trofimov to yaroslav.trofimov@wsj.com, Drew Hinshaw to drew.hinshaw@wsj.com and Kate O’Keeffe to kathryn.okeeffe@wsj.com

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