As China continues its inexorable rise to global prominence, it is spreading its soft power throughout the global corridors of power. Beijing is well represented in most international organisations, and although its shareholding in the multilateral development banks is generally much smaller than that of the US, its influence in the decision-making process of these institutions often far exceeds its shareholding percentages. In some of them, little gets done without the wink and nod of China.
The same is true with international organisations, such as the UN, where China is punching far above its weight. A Chinese national is now in charge of 4 of the 15 specialised agencies of the United Nations (UN): the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the UN Industrial Development Organisation, and the International Telecommunication Union. By comparison, a French national leads two specialised agencies (the International Monetary Fund and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), the United Kingdom (UK) leads one (the International Labor Organisation), and the US leads the World Bank, UN Children’s Fund, and the World Food Program.
The US contributed between 22% and 28% of the UN’s various agency budgets in 2018. By contrast, China contributed just 8% of the UN’s regular budget from 2016-2018 (which will rise to approximately 12% by 2021). So why does China have more leadership roles and receive more recognition for its smaller contributions? Unlike China, US contributions have been large, consistent, and taken for granted by other member states. Unlike the US, China rarely demands budgetary restraint or reforms that inconvenience the UN or member states, which may account for at least part of its appeal.
China has also not hesitated to use its veto power at the UN, even on issues that other nations find particularly sensitive. China has used its veto to block a Security Council resolution 12 times since 1971. All but three of those vetoes have occurred since 2007 and served to prevent Security Council action against such states as Myanmar, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. Since 2013, China has become increasingly assertive in UN human rights institutions by promoting its own interpretation of international norms and mechanisms.
At the UN, that has translated into a violation of Article 100 of the UN Charter, which states: “In the performance of their duties the Secretary-General and the staff shall not seek or receive instructions from any government or from any other authority external to the Organisation. Each Member of the UN undertakes to respect the exclusively international character of the responsibilities of the Secretary-General and the staff and not to seek to influence them in the discharge of their responsibilities.”
China has become accustomed to applying “Chinese characteristics” to many aspects of its domestic ecosystem, and that of the rest of the world. The global corridors of power are no exception. In this case, Beijing has decided to “cherry pick” and determine which aspects of international standards and norms it chooses to adhere to, and which it prefers to modify to suit its own particular set of needs its own way. If all nations of the world did this, there would be few universally accepted and honoured rules and standards.
This is part of the Chinese modus operandi for integrating itself with the world, working within the existing system to attempt to modify it from within and more toward its own liking. In doing so, Beijing is seeking to create an alternative world order in its own image. In the absence of formal objection from the world’s leading powers, it will continue to do just as it has become accustomed to doing.
The global corridors of power serve as an excellent platform for interpreting the evolving nature of world order, one which increasingly pits China against the US. In this example, the world’s nations can clearly see what world order dominated by China will become—a landscape of constantly shifting goal posts in which the boundaries defining norms, rules, and governance become a slippery slope, and each nation gets away with what it can for as long as it can. To prevent that day from coming, the world’s nations need to object—loudly and strongly—every time Beijing attempts to rewrite the standards and governance regimes that were thoughtfully crafted and have now served the world well for 75 years. The alternative is a zero-sum game in which China’s gain is everyone else’s loss.
Daniel Wagner is the founder and CEO of Country Risk Solutions and a widely published author on current affairs and risk management. The author of seven books, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org