The Trump administration is engaged in a behind-the-scenes effort at the United Nations to wrench control over key bodies from China, which has used its influence at the international organization to push anti-American measures, according to senior U.S. diplomats involved in the effort.
Nowhere has this been more evident than at the World Health Organization (WHO), which came under intense scrutiny earlier this year for efforts to help China mislead the world about the coronavirus pandemic and its origins. U.S. officials said the WHO controversy was a wake-up call.
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"The whole WHO saga is illustrative of what the problem is," according to a senior Trump administration official, who told the Washington Free Beacon about the years-long battle to dampen China’s influence over the WHO and other key U.N. bodies. The official spoke only on background about ongoing diplomatic efforts. "The fact that the Chinese succeeded in getting [WHO director] Mr. Tedros and his folks to withhold scientific data of a pandemic, putting China’s domestic agenda of freezing the Taiwanese out, ahead of global health—that’s our problem."
Chinese influence in multilateral organizations is reaching a critical mass, sources say, as Beijing mounts a bully pulpit-style campaign in the U.N. and elsewhere to defend its domestic interests. "The Chinese have done a very good job in going after leadership in multilateral organizations," the senior administration official said. Chinese officials lead 4 of the 15 key U.N.-based multilateral organizations, more than the five other members of the U.N. Security Council combined. No other country, including the United States, has an administrator leading more than one of these multilateral organizations.
The Trump administration has been working to shift this dynamic by enlisting allied nations to join a variety of international organizations, a perch from which they can promote Western ideology and U.S. interests. A central battleground in this fight is Africa, where China has invested great resources cultivating developing nations.
Senior Trump administration officials have been concerned with China’s influence at the U.N. for some time. Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley told the Free Beacon in May that "China is constantly working behind the scenes to gain more influence globally. That's especially true at the U.N., whether it's distracting from their own human-rights abuses, manipulating to gain control of U.N. agencies, or bullying smaller countries to vote their way."
The administration is raising the issue with allies and taking further steps to undermine China. One victory came in March, when a Singaporean candidate for the head of the U.N.’s intellectual property organization beat out Beijing’s candidate, a result that came in no small part due to America’s mobilization of its allies prior to the vote.
The "battle is going to be won or lost in the developing world," the senior administration official said. If the United States invests in these countries and helps to educate its burgeoning leaders, it can cultivate the next generation of diplomats. "We’ve just got to make this more painful for them than we have in the past."
While organizational leadership from any given country may not appear harmful, the Chinese have successfully steered multilateral organizations toward protecting their national interests. "The problem with this is when these individuals go into leadership positions, they do not act independently," according to the senior administration official. "This flies in the face of what the U.N. charter says."
Efforts to combat China are often procedural, yet still vital to depleting CCP sway at the U.N., sources said. The State Department, for instance, recently identified efforts by Beijing to expand into Afghanistan its Belt and Road Initiative, a massive Communist Party campaign to increase its global footprint. By inserting its language into a 2019 U.N. Security Council resolution on Afghanistan assistance, China hoped to justify an increased presence in the country that the United States viewed as damaging. The United States quashed the measure and later touted it as one of the few wins that year at the U.N.
"What the Chinese have been doing for some time, is inserting its language into U.N. documents; most basically these go against the spirit of multilateral negotiating documents," the senior official said.
Bret Schaefer, a former Pentagon official and senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said China’s efforts to insert pro-CCP language into U.N. documents "sounds innocuous, but then [the Chinese] get to refer back to that in other documents," creating an echo-chamber for Communist policies.
Schaefer warned that much of the progress made by the Trump administration could be lost under a Biden presidency. The Democratic candidate has vowed to rejoin U.N. groups such as the Human Rights Council, which the Trump administration abandoned due to its anti-Israel bias and inclusion of some of the world’s foremost human-rights abusers.
"If Vice President Biden becomes president and rejoins the HRC [and other international organizations] without any kinds of demands for reform prior to that reengagement, you’re just going to affirm to other countries that the U.S. isn’t serious about reform," he said.