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Ma Zhaoxu, centre, the Chinese permanent representative to the United Nations, addressing a Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria at the UN headquarters in New York in January. Photo: Xinhua

As Donald Trump focuses on ‘America First’, China flexes its growing muscle at UN

  • China seen as using its clout to undermine human rights positions and back resolutions that reflect its world view
  • Beijing has surpassed Japan as the body’s second biggest contributor

China sees a widening void at the United Nations, thanks to US President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy.

Trump’s scepticism of global bodies and alliances – his top diplomat recently singled out the UN as an organisation that needs to be “reformed or eliminated” – means Beijing has freer reign to impose its own vision of globalism on the body.

This year China surpassed Japan as the UN’s second-biggest donor, and analysts say it is using its growing clout to undermine human rights positions, sponsor resolutions that reflect its world view, and stamp out criticism of its more controversial policies back home.

“China sees a much greater value in the multilateral system as its power status grows,” said Jake Sherman, a former official at the US Mission to the UN who is now a director at the International Peace Institute in New York.

“They say, ‘We have this guy Trump who does not care about the UN. Let’s see how far we can push this.’”

China recently blocked a Syria briefing by Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Photo: Reuters

China’s internationalist approach has at times come as a relief to much of the world, especially as Beijing champions environmental accords spurned by the US.

But Western diplomats are increasingly concerned China wants to use its leadership to reduce the UN’s focus on human rights and emphasise its own version of state-led capitalism.

With the US pushing to reduce its contributions, China and Russia last year made a joint push during budget negotiations to cut human rights posts at peacekeeping missions.

Though the effort was stymied by Western powers, the two nations did manage to help shutter a smaller unit in the secretary general’s office charged with coordinating human rights efforts.

They are expected to target other human rights posts again this year, several diplomats said.

“China is trying to get rid of human rights at the UN, one post at a time,” said Louis Charbonneau, the UN director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s a systematic, long-term approach, and they are learning how to use the UN system to their advantage.”

Watch: The most dramatic speeches in UN history

Officials at China’s UN Mission did not respond to a request for comment.

“It’s Trump’s unilateral approach that has cost the US influence in the UN, rather than a reduction in donations,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of International Relations at China’s Renmin University.

“China is willing to increase its contribution within its capacity. There is no direct relationship between sharing more contributions and increasing the right to speak.”

Even as Trump cedes ground, the US is still the dominant power at the United Nations and other global organisations, footing the bill for about 25 percent of the peacekeeping budget and 22 percent of the regular budget.

China will make net contributions of US$335 million to the core UN general budget this year, about half the US$674 million the US is assessed. Those figures do not include spending for other UN agencies or peacekeeping operations.

In addition, Chinese diplomats hold two senior positions at the UN compared to more than 20 for the US And China still does not have the diplomatic heft and web of alliances to push complex agreements such as non-proliferation accords and global sanctions.

But while China was once seen as a reticent member of the UN Security Council – using its veto power in very limited situations – Beijing has recently thrown its weight around more aggressively.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described Chinese business investments in Africa as an example of “win-win” collaboration. Photo: Xinhua

It was instrumental in blocking some human rights briefings by tapping into its alliances in developing regions like Africa and Central Asia, where it has become a dominant economic power, diplomats said.

Working with Russia, China recently blocked a Syria briefing by Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, even though China does not have major national interests in the war-torn country.

With the UN increasingly vulnerable to budget cuts, China also sees an opportunity to use its growing contributions as leverage.

Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who as prime minister of Portugal oversaw Macau’s handover to China, wooed Beijing early on, recognising its emerging role at the UN.

In a recent speech, Guterres described Chinese business investments in Africa as an example of “win-win” collaboration, adopting diplomatic language that human rights advocates say signals giving precedence to economic development over civil liberties.

“China is working hard to win over others to their views of the world,” Richard Gowan, a senior fellow at the United Nations University’s Centre for Policy Research. “It’s mostly symbolic for now, but it’s a way for them to build legitimacy for their world view.”

While the US abandoned the UN Human Rights Council last June, accusing it of bias against Israel, China has moved to get the council to support its positions.

The mysterious disappearance and subsequent detention by China of Interpol chief Meng Hongwei last year has concerned some critics about Beijing assuming leadership roles in global bodies. Photo: AP

Last year, a China-sponsored resolution calling for “mutually beneficial cooperation” passed, a win for Beijing’s effort to weaken global tactics “like naming and shaming human rights abusers,” Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in September.

China’s approach, much like its “One-Belt One-Road” initiative, is prompting a backlash, especially among Europeans.

Beijing tried unsuccessfully to block the accreditation of Uygur activist Dolkun Isa before the UN, and its effort to slash US$28 million from a UN body responsible for gathering evidence of crimes against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar was stopped, according to Human Rights Watch.

To gain long-term clout, the Chinese are eyeing more senior roles, including leadership of the peacekeeping organisation where it has become the biggest contributor of troops.

Brett Schaefer, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, pointed to the mysterious disappearance of Interpol chief Meng Hongwei last year as a sign of a broader concern if China is to take on leadership roles in global bodies.

“When you name a British or American diplomat they might come with Western values but you know there are transparent mechanisms in place to ensure some level of independence,” Schaefer said.

“When you name a Chinese to head a group at the UN, is he representing the organisation or is he representing China?”