Criticized by the White House for alleged interference in US politics, China has quietly blazed a path at the United Nations where it is, little by little, becoming one of the most influential members.
At the Security Council, where China holds one of five permanent veto-wielding seats, its statements remain bland, often recalling fundamentals of the United Nations Charter such as national sovereignty and principles of non-interference.
“In their interpretation, democracy is optional, as are human rights,” a European diplomat said.
Yet in peacekeeping missions or when jobs are available in the UN’s executive arm at the New York headquarters, Beijing is increasingly making its presence felt.
More than 2,500 Chinese military personnel wear UN blue helmets on peacekeeping missions in Libya, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.
China has also “enormously increased” its voluntary financial contributions to the world body while the US under President Donald Trump has slashed its own financing, one diplomat said.
Funding reports and missions allows China to buy some “influence” and push its candidates into top positions, the diplomat added, adding that to have Chinese in multiple roles across the UN provides “a source of information and influence.”
Another diplomat, also speaking anonymously, said: “China is taking power at the United Nations.”
Spheres of influence
In 2017 and 2018, the Asian giant, which is economically expanding in Africa and elsewhere, became a key player on two major international crises: North Korea and Myanmar.
Under American pressure, Beijing imposed unprecedented economic sanctions against Pyongyang, but with the hope that an accord on denuclearization of the Korean peninsula will lead to the departure of about 30,000 US troops based in South Korea — China’s behind-the-scenes strategy in the region.
China meanwhile considers the crisis of Myanmar’s Muslim minority Rohingya, 700,000 of whom fled a military crackdown to Bangladesh, as a bilateral issue between those two countries, and succeeded in preventing any firm Security Council action.
Power and erosion
European diplomats have noted that China’s rise at the United Nations has come at a time when Beijing and Moscow are no longer automatically offering each other immediate reciprocal support.
When Moscow makes use of its veto power, China sometimes simply abstains.
Even in lower-profile situations, such as negotiating texts among the 15 Security Council members at the experts level, China is “present on all subjects,” one diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Beijing, for example, is now seeking to become chief author on texts about Afghanistan, replacing the Netherlands, which on January 1 will leave its non-permanent Security Council seat, several diplomats said.
The vast majority of UN resolutions still are written by the United States, Britain or France — a reflection of an older world order.
China, like Russia, is rarely the author, although it was in charge of the Somalia file in the past.
So how far will China go? Some say this is only the tip of the iceberg.
“For China, multipolarity is just one stop on the underground metro line,” one diplomatic source said.
For Beijing, it then sees a Group of Two — China and the US, and eventually, China will reign supreme, a diplomat said.
“They are long-term players. They don’t want to create a commotion,” another diplomatic source said.
The United States has imposed $250 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods and Trump has gone so far as alleging that Beijing is interfering in the November midterm elections in hopes of helping defeat his Republican Party due to his tough trade stance.
Speaking to a US think tank last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed fears that his country was seeking to overtake the US as the pre-eminent world power.
Concluding that China is about to seek hegemony, he said, is “a serious strategic misjudgment.”