June 2, 2020 | Policy Brief

Trump’s New China Strategy Must Focus on International Organizations

June 2, 2020 | Policy Brief

Trump’s New China Strategy Must Focus on International Organizations

The White House released the “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China” last month, outlining the Trump administration’s “National Security Strategy as it applies most directly to the PRC.” The report states that the administration “has adopted a competitive approach to the PRC” in which the United States works to protect its vital interests and achieve four objectives: “(1) protect the American people, homeland, and way of life; (2) promote American prosperity; (3) preserve peace through strength; and (4) advance American influence.”

The fourth objective – advancing American influence – is of particular interest amidst increasing attention on China’s exploitation of international organizations to serve its own strategic objectives. The report claims that the United States is building cooperative partnerships with international organizations, but it provides scant information on how the administration plans to compete with China in this arena.

Admittedly, the Trump administration has confronted Chinese influence in several international organizations – perhaps more so than its predecessor. But the administration has had varying degrees of success, raising questions about its overarching strategy and implementation.

In March, a U.S.-backed Singaporean candidate defeated a Chinese candidate in the race to lead the World Intellectual Property Organization. Months before, however, the United States lost its bid to block China from taking control of the Food and Agriculture Organization. And just last week, the United States ended its participation in the World Health Organization (WHO) after the body’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic revealed a degree of subservience to Beijing. Time will tell whether the administration’s withdrawal, even if warranted, was the right move to “advance American influence” on global health issues.

More broadly, while the administration’s strategy calls for increasing American influence in international organizations, it presents no clear path or strategy to achieve that objective. The administration’s efforts to compete with China in this sphere appear reactive thus far. Without a whole-of-government approach to compete with China in international organizations, America will continue to suffer defeats. Indeed, the World Bank recently approved more than $1 billion in new loans for China – which the Bank considers “an upper middle-income country that has remaining development challenges” – over strong objections from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and despite having an American close to President Donald Trump at the Bank’s helm.

With more than 300 international organizations ranging in function and geographic involvement, even a good, broad strategy is not enough. The United States needs individual implementation plans to compete with China in every organization where U.S. interests are present. In some cases, ceasing participation in organizations may be appropriate – but that action should be tied to others in a sustained campaign that compels multilateral reforms in favor of U.S. interests.

U.S. strategies are also needed to erode China’s consolidated gains. For example, a Chinese information and telecommunications engineer chairs the International Telecommunication Union, which plays a leading role in developing global standards for the internet and 5G and 6G networks. The post is ideal to help China advocate for Huawei in the face of Western claims that the company’s systems are vulnerable to Chinese espionage. Washington’s inability to prevent China’s deputy agriculture minister from being elected to lead the Food and Agriculture Organization has yielded China a platform to promote its own agribusiness.

The Trump administration appears keenly aware of the problem. As one senior administration official said last week, “Chinese officials heading international organizations lack independence from the CCP, and have a proven track record of using these leadership roles to mold the U.N. agenda to serve the CCP’s own self-serving interests.” The new White House document reflected this understanding as well. But an effective strategy is still needed. Now is the time to build and implement a proactive approach to compete with China across all international organizations that touch U.S. interests. This will go a long way to help achieve the administration’s objective of “advancing American influence.”

Richard Goldberg, a founding staff director of the U.S.-China Working Group, is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Richard, CMPP, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Richard on Twitter @rich_goldberg. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


China International Organizations Military and Political Power