During his first visit to the U.S. Department of State as president, Joe Biden acknowledged the “growing ambitions of China to rival the United States” and pledged to push back against China’s attack on global governance. To reach this laudable goal, the State Department will have to build on the previous administration’s efforts to address Chinese influence, leadership, and employment in the United Nations.
Opinion on China has changed significantly over the past four years. Both sides of the political aisle now recognize that China is an adversary and has increasingly used the United Nations as a vehicle to promote its national interests.
China currently leads four of the 15 UN specialized agencies. Under Chinese leadership, these organizations have adopted pro-Beijing positions. For example, the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, blocked Taiwan’s participation, even though the latter is a major air traffic hub. As COVID-19 spread globally, the ICAO refused to share information about aviation operations with Taiwan. When ICAO was called out publicly on Twitter, one of the organization’s Chinese communications officers blocked profiles that were critical of its policies.
Meanwhile, the Chinese leader of the International Telecommunication Union championed Beijing’s priorities in violation of his obligation to be a neutral international civil servant. The United Nations Industrial Development Organization likewise championed China’s Belt and Road Initiative, while China is using the Food and Agriculture Organization to promote its influence in Asia and Africa.
International organizations are also being influenced from the bottom up. In 2009, the UN system employed 794 Chinese nationals. Ten years later, it employed 1,336 Chinese nationals—an increase of 68%.
Upon their hiring, all UN employees take an oath of office to “not seek or receive instructions from any government or from any other authority external to the Organization.” Employees from many countries take this oath seriously.They often act independently of the wishes of their governments, and often even counter to them.
This is not the case for China. Beijing expects its nationals to serve China’s interests above those of the United Nations, such as when former Under-Secretary-General Wu Hongbo bragged of expelling human-rights activists critical of China from the UN. Chinese nationals who fail to bow to Beijing are punished, as former Interpol President Meng Hongwei learned after being arrested and sentenced for refusing to “follow party decisions.”
But it is not enough merely to focus attention on Chinese malfeasance. The United States also needs to work to ensure that it has the means to set itself up for success when getting Americans into international organizations. While the Trump administration did not get everything right, it did America a great service by focusing on China, highlighting the threat it poses to the international system, and taking steps to counter Chinese influence.
At the State Department, this included setting up an Office of Multilateral Competitiveness in the Bureau of International Organizational Affairs to focus on UN elections and to counter Beijing’s malign influence. Obviously, a major focus is to support qualified American candidates. However, the broader goal includes supporting candidates who will put the interests of the organization and, most importantly, its mission ahead of the interests of any one nation. If an American candidate is not available, the United States should throw its support behind a like-minded candidate. Last year, the United States did just this by leading a successful effort to defeat the Chinese candidate for Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization.
The office is also charged with promoting and advocating for U.S. employment in…