April 7, 2021 | Policy Brief

Biden Takes First Step in Countering China Through UN Elections

April 7, 2021 | Policy Brief

Biden Takes First Step in Countering China Through UN Elections

The departments of State and Commerce last week announced their support for the candidacy of Doreen Bogdan-Martin to be the next secretary-general of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The U.S. statements mark a good first step in getting American citizens into UN leadership positions – an essential task for countering China’s influence within international organizations.

The ITU is responsible for all international matters related to communications. As technology advances, China has worked to expand the ITU’s mandate to play a vital role in establishing standards for guaranteeing interoperability in international data and communications networks.

The ITU is currently led by Houlin Zhao, a graduate of China’s Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications who is known for championing Beijing’s priorities, in violation of UN civil servant obligations. As China attempts to reinvent the internet through its New IP initiative, Zhao has worked to make the ITU the international body to arbitrate China’s signature priority.

The need for a fair and unbiased public servant to evaluate New IP is critical. While Zhao will not be eligible for re-election when the next vote takes place in 2023, the Biden administration’s announcement of Bogdan-Martin’s candidacy is a shot across the bow, signaling to Beijing that the United States seeks to expand its leadership within the multilateral community and restore impartiality within the UN system. Unlike Beijing, the United States does not provide direction or guidance to its citizens working for international institutions.

In recent years, Beijing has had considerable success in filling UN leadership positions with its nationals, using them as vehicles to advance its national interests. A recent case at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) provides a poignant example. When COVID-19 began to spread globally from China, ICAO, led by Chinese national Fang Liu (whom Juan Carlos Salazar of Colombia will replace in August), refused to share information with Taiwan about aviation operations. This effectively blocked Taipei, an international air traffic hub, from information sharing and logistical planning to address the pandemic.

When an expert at the nonprofit research organization Project 2049 pointed this out on Twitter, a Chinese communications officer with ICAO blocked the account. The State Department characterized the move as “outrageous, unacceptable, and not befitting of a UN organization.”

Through its endorsement of Bogdan-Martin, the Biden administration is starting the ITU election campaign early. The Biden team should follow through with its support by instituting a campaign strategy and resourcing it appropriately to ensure Bogdan-Martin’s victory. Similarly, it is critical that the Biden administration partner with like-minded countries to find mutually agreed-upon candidates to ensure the ITU’s leaders, specifically the deputy secretary-general and other senior officials, do not serve Beijing’s interests.

Morgan Lorraine Viña previously served as chief of staff to U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Nikki R. Haley and is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Nathan Picarsic and Emily de La Bruyère are senior fellows. They all contribute to FDD’s China Program and International Organizations Program. For more analysis from Morgan, Nathan, Emily, and the China and International Organization programs, please subscribe HERE. Follow Morgan and Emily on Twitter @morganlroach and @edelabruyere. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


China International Organizations