June 2, 2022 | Policy Brief

China’s Multilateral March Continues

June 2, 2022 | Policy Brief

China’s Multilateral March Continues

China scored several diplomatic victories last week at the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), amplifying concerns about the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) efforts to co-opt the UN system. Beijing’s growing multilateral clout calls into question the Biden administration’s strategy of reforming UN agencies via deeper diplomatic engagement with little to no pressure to back up Washington’s demands.

In a 2017 speech before the CCP’s 19th Party Congress, General Secretary Xi Jinping outlined plans for China to take “an active part in leading the reform of the global governance system.” Xi’s speech marked a turning point in China’s efforts to leverage the United Nations as a platform to undermine democratic values and legitimize Beijing’s illiberal behavior. Since then, China’s annual UN financial commitments have surged by 75 percent to more than $367 million, making Beijing the second-largest UN contributor after the United States.

Central to China’s multilateral takeover is the goal of denying Taiwan’s participation in UN activities. This strategy dates back to 2016, when Taiwanese voters elected Tsai Ing-wen as president on a platform that refuted Beijing’s contention that Taiwan is a part of “one China.” The following year, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus — who had secured his position with Beijing’s backing — upended years of precedent by prohibiting Taiwan from serving as a non-voting observer during the WHO’s annual agenda-setting meeting, the World Health Assembly (WHA). Tedros’ ban on Taiwanese participation remains in place.

During the 2022 WHA last week in Geneva, China’s triumphs were three-fold. First, Beijing convinced Tedros to continue blocking Taiwan’s attendance despite two G7 joint communiques backing Taiwan’s “meaningful participation” in the event. Second, Tedros sailed to re-election for a second five-year term (2022–2027) after the Biden administration declined to nominate a more qualified candidate to challenge him. Consequently, Taiwan will likely be prohibited from attending WHO meetings for five additional years.

Lastly, China secured a three-year term (2022–2025) on the WHO’s Executive Board, the organization’s highest-level decision-making body. Beijing will serve on the board despite refusing to cooperate with the WHO’s investigation into COVID-19’s origins. In concert with current Executive Board members Russia and Syria, China will play a major role in shaping global health standards and the WHO’s program of work.

Meanwhile, UNHRC Commissioner Michelle Bachelet completed a trip to China last week aimed at scrutinizing the CCP’s detention — and, in some cases, forced sterilization — of over 1 million Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minority groups. Her trip coincided with investigative journalists’ release of cached government documents, known as the “Xinjiang Police Files,” detailing China’s mass detention system. Chinese officials denied Bachelet’s request for “full and unfettered” access to internment camps, although she did meet in-person with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and met virtually with Xi himself.

In a public relations coup for Beijing, Bachelet concluded her trip by refusing to condemn, let alone acknowledge, China’s repression of ethnic minorities. Instead, she referred to the camps as “vocational and educational training centers” associated with China’s “counterterrorism” and “de-radicalization” operations, parroting the CCP’s description of its policy toward minorities. Still unclear is whether the UNHRC will issue a long-awaited report on rights abuses in Xinjiang, which UNHRC officials previously described as “deeply disturbing.”

Thus far, Biden administration officials have not outlined concrete plans to counter China’s multilateral influence, beyond a generic insistence that sustained engagement will eventually lead to reform. Given the shortcomings of this approach, Congress should hold hearings on the UN system and condition future U.S. funding for the WHO on the re-establishment of Taiwan’s non-observer status. Similar appropriations strategies should be considered for other UN agencies seen drifting into China’s orbit.

Craig Singleton, a national security expert and former U.S. diplomat, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s China Program and International Organizations Program. For more analysis from Craig, the China Program, and the International Organizations Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow Craig on Twitter @CraigMSingleton. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


China International Organizations