China could take bigger role in Unesco after US withdrawal
Beijing wants to ‘contribute more to the organisation’ but withdraws candidate for top job at the heritage body, backing Egyptian candidate instead
The US withdrawal from Unesco could give China scope to take a bigger role in the world heritage body, analysts say, as Beijing seeks to boost its international soft power.
Beijing on Friday said it would continue participating and cooperating with other countries in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation after Washington announced it would leave the agency the previous day.
“China values the importance of Unesco and would like to contribute more to the organisation’s cooperation,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular press briefing in Beijing.
China has also withdrawn its candidate for director general of Unesco in favour of Egypt’s Moushira Khattab in a move analysts said could be partly aimed at boosting ties with the Arab world.
China is the third largest contributor to Unesco, providing 7.9 per cent of funding to the organisation. That compares to the 22 per cent the United States used to provide, and 9 per cent from Japan.
The US cut funding to the UN body in 2011 after members granted Palestine full membership and it now owes about US$550 million. Washington cited “continuing anti-Israel bias” and the mounting overdue payments as reasons for its withdrawal. Israel later announced it would also quit the agency.
Irina Bokova, director general of Unesco, expressed her “profound regret” at the decision.
The US membership will end on December 31 but it will seek to remain as a permanent observer, the US State Department said.
The loss of its biggest donor could seriously undermine the operation and functioning of Unesco, and China will likely take on a greater role, according to Jin Canrong, an international relations expert at Renmin University in Beijing.
“It is inevitable that China’s importance in this organisation will increase, but I don’t think China wants to take over the role of the United States,” he said.
“As its power grows, China has been trying to expand its influence in international organisations including Unesco, whether the US is in or not,” said Zhang Guihong, head of the Centre for UN and International Organisations Studies at Fudan University. “The US withdrawal means Unesco will need more support from China and other members.”
Other analysts agreed that China would play a bigger part in the cultural agency, likening the situation to US President Donald Trump pulling out of the global climate change deal earlier this year.
In June, when Trump was considering withdrawing from the Paris accord, Chinese President Xi Jinping became its defender, saying the deal must not be allowed to fail.
Xi visited the Unesco headquarters in Paris in 2014, speaking highly of the organisation. His wife, Peng Liyuan, is a special envoy for Unesco’s campaign for girls’ and women’s education.
Bokova’s second term as head of Unesco ends this year and members are voting on a replacement. China has withdrawn its candidate, Qian Tang, and is backing Khattab, according to Egyptian foreign ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid.
In the third round, Qian had five votes, while Khattab had 13. French candidate Audrey Azoulay and Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari had 18 votes each. The final round of voting will be held on Saturday.
“We support the election to choose a director general who will meet the requirements of the organisation and the expectations of the member states,” Hua of the foreign ministry said.
China has many reasons to back the Egyptian candidate, including improving its ties with the Arab world as well as Egypt’s involvement in its belt and road trade and infrastructure plan, according to Liu Naiya, a West Asian and African studies expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
“Egypt is a big and influential country in both Africa and the Arab world, and China’s decision to back an Egyptian means Beijing thinks that candidate has a strong possibility of winning,” Liu said.
And there was a high chance the United States would return to Unesco in the future once Trump left the White House, Jin of Renmin University said.
“It’s a matter of the leader’s will. Trump doesn’t believe in multilateralism, but his successor might,” Jin said.
The US previously pulled out of Unesco in 1984 under Ronald Reagan, then rejoined in 2003 under George W Bush.
Additional reporting by Kristin Huang