Europe in the World


Welcoming and resisting China's growing role in the UN

08 Feb 2019 - 09:00
Source: United Nations/flickr via friends of europe

This opinion was originally published in Europe's World, the online journal of the Brussels-based think tank Friends of Europe, as part of an ongoing series on China's role in international institutions. It presents some key findings of the Clingendael report A United Nations with Chinese characteristics

The Chinese government is strengthening its role and influence in international institutions, including in the United Nations. This is reshaping such organisations, with real change coming into effect on the setting and developing of norms and standards. European countries are hard-pressed to develop a better understanding of Chinese approaches and tactics in the UN. Yet this should serve as a starting point to develop guiding principles for how to engage China (when interests are shared) and to push back (when interests clash). A closer look at what’s happening in the fields of human rights, development finance and climate governance makes for a good start, providing an eye-opening reality-check.

The power dynamics between China and Western powers in the UN have undergone drastic change since the 1950s. Back then, Western countries dominated both the General Assembly and the Security Council. China was represented by the Republic of China (aka Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC, China) was not even a member.

"The country is expected to become the second largest contributor to the overall UN budget by early 2019."

The world looks very different today. China has joined the UN (in 1971), as did a large number of other developing countries. To strengthen their bargaining position, most of these developing countries came together to comprise the ‘Group of 77 and China’ (G77). This grouping of 134 countries includes a majority – almost 70% – of UN members. China has the unique advantage of having both veto power in the Security Council while simultaneously being able to wield significant influence in the G77. 

China’s influence within the UN system has increased in accordance with its new status as the largest contributor of troops for peacekeeping operations among the permanent members of the Security Council. Furthermore, China’s share in financial contributions for peacekeeping rose from 6.6% in 2016 to 10.3% in 2018, making it the second-largest financial contributor. The country is expected to become the second largest contributor to the overall UN budget by early 2019.

Meanwhile, cohesion within the group of pro-Western UN members has been decreasing.  One reason for this is reduced US engagement under President Donald Trump, with condemnation reaching new heights when the US pulled out of the UN Human Rights Commission earlier this year. Breaking EU unity is certainly another important factor, as illustrated by the failure of the EU in June 2017 to deliver its annual statement criticising China’s human rights record, following a Greek veto.

For many decades, China kept a low profile in the UN. But since Xi Jinping assumed leadership in 2012, the Chinese government has become more active and visible. As Xi put it, in 2017: “China will firmly uphold the international system with the UN as its core, the basic norms governing international relations embodied in the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, the authority and stature of the UN, and its core role in international affairs.” At the most fundamental level, China has the same interests as other UN members, in that it wishes to preserve the UN’s role as the most important international organisation.
However, it is important to understand that Chinese interests differ in many ways from those of European countries. Consider, for example, the human rights domain. Here, the Chinese government actively tries to influence norms, filling the growing vacuum left by the US. Beijing wants respect for state sovereignty – rather than respect for human rights – to be the main principle of international relations. China is also attempting to direct the definition of human rights away from an emphasis on political and individual rights and instead towards an emphasis on economic and social rights. Finally, China seems to be working towards ensuring that the promotion of development is accepted as the main aim for UN institutions, aside from the Security Council. The promotion of human rights would therefore be subordinate to developmental aims.

Chinese attempts to steer away from human rights-related developmental goals to economic development become more apparent when attention is paid to the substantial investments that the Chinese government is making in social-economic bodies of the UN. With a vast workforce and ever-growing financing, Beijing seeks to strengthen its influence in such agencies – including the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) and the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). 

"Where Chinese interests and approaches clash with those of European countries, better responses have to be devised to limit negative consequences".

Beijing has a relatively free hand in these bodies, as many Western countries have gradually retreated from these so-called ‘orphan agencies’, considering them to be of limited importance. Going largely unnoticed, therefore, is the fact that China is increasingly able to employ the UN to internationalise and legitimise aspects of its political-economic system – first and foremost, by ‘UN-ising’ its Belt and Road Initiative.

In the climate change regime that is based on the UNFCCC, the positions of European countries and China differ as well, but they also have overlapping areas. The Chinese government is of the view that developed nations – and not the largest emitters today – should accept the main burden of financing the global reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, it is taking huge steps to decarbonize its own economic growth and keen to present itself as a reliable partner in the Paris Agreements, from which the US pulled out. And in recent years in the Security Council it moved closer to the position of many European countries by acknowledging that climate change can enhance conflict in specific countries and regions.

A closer look at China’s engagement with other UN bodies – particularly the Fifth Committee (the body responsible for the UN budget), the UN Security Council and peacekeeping operations would most likely result in similar conclusions: showing that China is strengthening its role and influence through vast investments in funds and staff, and showcasing public support for its national initiatives.

Growing Chinese involvement with the UN is only natural and should be welcomed by European countries. Where Chinese interests and approaches clash with those of European countries, better responses have to be devised to limit negative consequences.