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The UN under Siege: Unpacking Beijing’s Strategy to Erode Global Institutions

The UN under Siege: Unpacking Beijing's Strategy to Erode Global Institutions


The role of the UN in American foreign policy has become more of an afterthought than a priority these days. As the world descends into great power competition, the idea of multilateral institutions as a panacea for global challenges seems like a relic of a bygone era of optimism. With frightening levels of polarization in the U.S. and elections in November, the last thing voters are pondering is how the next president will engage the UN. This disregard is neither new nor surprising and certainly not the fault of individual voters. For years, U.S. attitudes toward the UN have oscillated between disengagement and retrenchment depending on the administration. Amidst this cyclical vacillation, the U.S. has diminished its organizational leverage while the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has expanded its influence.

Unlike the U.S., the PRC leverages its UN membership as a force multiplier to advance its interests and reshape global norms and the international order. Through economic coercion, strategic placement of its officials in key positions, and pressure on foreign officials, Beijing has undermined the UN’s institutional integrity to accommodate its domestic and international agenda. It has also successfully silenced critics of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) human rights violations and malign activities.

Under President Xi Jinping’s hallmark “wolf warrior diplomacy,” Beijing has recognized that it cannot accomplish its maximalist objectives within the confines of the current international order. Consequently, PRC officials within the UN system have silently pushed for resolutions and norms that reflect its global vision. Foremost, the PRC prioritizes non-interference and state sovereignty over democracy and human rights. Moreover, the CCP’s conceptualization of human rights promotes the right to economic development at the expense of political and civil rights. Other authoritarian regimes support the PRC’s vision for the international system, as it would enable them to operate without criticism, accountability, or consequences.

Perhaps most egregious is the PRC’s abuse of UN committee positions. Despite its well-documented repression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, which Beijing has whitewashed as “vocational education,” China retains its position on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The PRC has routinely used this position to silence and shield itself from criticism.

In 2019, 22 Western countries sent a letter to the UNHRC that urged the CCP to close its Xinjiang re-education camps. The PRC responded by rallying 50 countries–nearly all with poor human rights records and economic dependence on China–to sign a joint letter that praised its “remarkable achievements in Xinjiang.” The UNHRC rejected a similar Western bid to hold a debate on PRC crimes against humanity against Uyghurs in October 2022. However, efforts to suppress debate extend beyond the situation in Xinjiang, with Beijing marshaling 53 countries to defend its imposition of the Hong Kong National Security Law. Uncoincidentally, 43 were recipients of PRC investments through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

China also weaponizes its role on the NGO Committee of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). This committee grants applicant organizations consultative status, a mechanism necessary to participate in the UN’s activities, events, and negotiations. Unfortunately, Beijing has conditioned its vote of approval on whether the organization recognizes Taiwan as an integral part of China.

The subversion of institutional integrity is not limited to committees, most recently exhibited during the World Health Organization’s (WHO) response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Alongside blatant failures to adhere to International Health Regulations, the CCP launched a pressure campaign on the WHO to downplay the virus’s severity. This was coupled with obfuscation efforts and a general lack of transparency that left the world woefully unprepared for what was to come. The PRC has also long pressured countries to reject Taiwan’s membership in the WHO despite the island’s medical expertise.

Additionally, the CCP makes concerted efforts to install its nationals in leadership positions within the UN’s specialized agencies. In 2019, when no other country held more than two leadership positions, China had four, with another candidate under nomination. For eight years, Houlin Zhao oversaw the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which regulates and standardizes telecommunications and information technology. During his time, Zhao leveraged his influence to benefit domestic companies like Huawei and promoted PRC internet norms of surveillance and censorship. CCP officials have also held leadership positions in INTERPOL, the UN Industrial Development Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization, and the Food and Agriculture Organization. Like Zhao at the ITU, the agency heads brazenly pursued PRC interests in violation of the agency’s neutrality mandates.

President Xi’s inauguration of the UN Peace and Development Trust Fund (UNPDF) provides another compelling example of Beijing’s self-interested pursuits. Launched in 2015, the much-vaunted fund is run by a steering committee of mostly CCP officials. Unsurprisingly, over one-third of its approved projects have fallen under China’s flagship BRI. While CCP malpractices at the UN do not end here, the picture is clear.

Fortunately, the U.S. is the UN’s largest contributor and possesses the alliances necessary to counter the PRC’s expanding influence. Washington should utilize its power of the purse to drive structural reforms that improve transparency and accountability. For example, it is clear that the UNHRC is broken, and the U.S. should advocate for prerequisites that prevent the world’s worst human rights abusers from holding panel positions. Moreover, U.S. and European diplomats should collaborate to create coalitions that coordinate leadership roles and voting strategies.

However, nothing is possible without sustained U.S. engagement across administrations. This is not to say that the UN will become the supranational authority some envisioned in the aftermath of World War II. Many Americans will remain skeptical of the UN. Nonetheless, even UN skeptics would agree that countering China is America’s top foreign policy priority. Doing so requires a comprehensive diplomatic approach that ensures Washington defends its interests and those of the free world in every possible arena.