China and the US battle for influence at the UN

Singaporean candidate Daren Tang, chief executive of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore, won the nomination for the post of the new director general of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) on 4 March, pipping the Chinese deputy director general to the post. Chinese professor Zhu Ying analyses the push back from the US amid China’s rising influence in various UN bodies.
The headquarter of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) is pictured in Geneva, Switzerland on 3 March 2020. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)
The headquarter of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) is pictured in Geneva, Switzerland on 3 March 2020. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

On 4 March, in an extraordinary session of the Coordination Committee of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), Daren Tang, chief executive of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore, won the nomination for the post of WIPO’s new director general. (NB: The nomination is slated to be confirmed in May. The six-year term of the new director general begins on 1 Oct 2020.) Tang had been chosen over WIPO’s current deputy director general Wang Binying, a former Chinese trade official, with 55 votes to 28. In voting for candidates for WIPO’s top job, China stood behind Wang, whereas the US and Europe supported Daren Tang.

The bid for WIPO’s director-generalship is merely a prelude to more vying between both countries in the UN arena. 

This election of WIPO’s director general is a landmark event. It is indicative not only of China’s increasing influence in the United Nations, but also of America’s determination to put a lid on precisely such a trend. In the lead up to the nomination, the Americans seemed to be incensed by the possible appointment of a Chinese official as WIPO’s director general. They would no longer accept the taking up of leadership positions in the UN by such individuals, particularly after China's successful bid for the top post at the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN (FAO) last year. Evidently, the strategic rivalry between China and the US has found its way into the UN. Viewing China as a revisionist state, America is striking back vigorously. The bid for the director-generalship of WIPO is merely a prelude to more competition between both countries in the UN arena. 

Daren Tang. (IPOS)
Daren Tang, Chief Executive, Intellectual Property Office of Singapore. He had won the nomination for the post of WIPO’s new director general. (IPOS)

China’s rising influence in UN bodies

It should be noted, first and foremost, that Chinese influence in the UN is growing day by day. A Xinhua article dated 23 October 2017 said, “China, which is getting closer and closer to the centre of the world stage, is willing to provide the world with China's opportunities, China's wisdom, China's plan, China's experience, and China's reference, so as to bring more powerful positive energy to the international community.” In addition, the appointment of Chinese officials to the UN’s key posts attests to China’s status as “a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence”, as espoused by President Xi Jinping in his speech at the 19th Communist Party Congress in October 2017.

China’s redefinition of the concept of human rights has made its mark on the UNHRC. The Asian giant thinks of human rights in terms of the right to survival and development.

The number of leadership positions China holds in UN bodies is on the rise. In the UN’s 15 specialised agencies, there are the following Chinese officials at the helm: Li Yong, elected director general of the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) in June 2013; Zhao Houlin, elected secretary general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in October 2014; Liu Fang, elected secretary general of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in March 2015; and Qu Dongyu, elected director general of FAO in June 2019.

In addition, many Chinese officials have ancillary roles in UN bodies too. For example, Liu Zhenmin, a UN under-secretary-general for economic and social affairs since 26 July 2017, is also serving as the convenor for the Executive Committee on Economic and Social Affairs (ECESA). China itself takes part in the activities of key UN bodies as a country. It was admitted, for example, into the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for the fourth time in 2016.

Chinese influence on the UN is subtly rewriting international rules. China’s redefinition of the concept of human rights has made its mark on the UNHRC. The Asian giant thinks of human rights in terms of the right to survival and development. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on the other hand, asserts that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person” as it proclaims “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration”. The rights referred to here are obviously political.

Human rights as defined by China “have broken through the limitations of the mainstream human rights discourse system of the West”, as described in a commentary featured in the overseas edition of People’s Daily. A resolution tabled by China to the UNHRC regarding “the contribution of development to the enjoyment of all human rights” was adopted in June 2017. This was the first time in the history of the Council that the idea of “furtherance of human rights by development” was being introduced into the international human rights system. The adoption of the resolution demonstrated China’s influence over the human rights issue. (NB: in July 2019, at the 41st session of the Human Rights Council, another resolution on “the contribution of development to the enjoyment of all human beings” was adopted, calling on all states, inter alia, to “spare no effort to promote sustainable development, in particular, while implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, as it facilitates the enjoyment of human rights”.)

This picture taken on 8 February 2020 shows a part of the first rail line linking China to Laos, a key part of Beijing's 'Belt and Road' project across the Mekong, in Luang Prabang. (Aidan Jones/AFP)
This picture taken on 8 February 2020 shows a part of the first rail line linking China to Laos, a key part of Beijing's 'Belt and Road' project across the Mekong, in Luang Prabang. In the eyes of the Americans, the Belt and Road is yet another means by which China seeks to change the international order and elevate its own influence. (Aidan Jones/AFP)

China has even taken its Belt and Road strategy into the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA). The UN DESA has actually been headed by a UN under-secretary-general of Chinese nationality since 2007. The department signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the Chinese government in September 2017. It was to spur both parties to strengthen their cooperation, help developing countries along the Belt and Road route to enhance their development capability, so as to advance constructions for the Initiative and implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

China remains uncensured because there is an adequate level of human rights in the country. However, Professor Guo Yuhua from Tsinghua University’s Department of Sociology has candidly remarked on 3 March that there exists in China a mode of governance that “treats people as mere tools” and it is “more toxic [than the coronavirus]”.

However, the US is intolerant of China’s influence in the UN. The Chinese view on human rights is shaping the UNHRC and poses a challenge to universal values. Human rights as understood by proponents of universal values underscore the respect for personal rights. Their conviction is that only through personal liberation can social vitality arise and enormous energy be unleashed. Given that the culture and values of personal liberation and respect for the individual are in line with the intrinsic nature of human beings, emphasis on the rights of the individual is considered part of universal values.

One thing that America cannot tolerate is the UNHRC’s failure to criticise countries deemed by the West to be in violation of human rights. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rebuked the Council for its “shameless hypocrisy” in “absolving wrongdoers through silence”. As Nikki Haley, former US Ambassador to the UN, put it, having serious violators of human rights like Venezuela, China and Cuba as the Council’s members is to “make a mockery of human rights”. Yet, the objective fact is this: while the UNHRC had censured Israel 70 times and Iran 7 times, no objection has ever been raised by it against China. Needless to say, China remains uncensured because there is an adequate level of human rights in the country. However, Professor Guo Yuhua from Tsinghua University’s Department of Sociology has candidly remarked on 3 March that there exists in China a mode of governance that “treats people as mere tools” and it is “more toxic [than the coronavirus]”.

Wang Binying. (WIPO official website)
Wang Binying, current deputy director general of WIPO and former Chinese trade official. (Internet/WIPO official website)

After the US announced its official withdrawal from the UNHRC in June 2018, Russia submitted its candidacy for membership in the same Council. Notably, this is a country that supports the notion of human rights as advocated by China. Experts in the West caution that China is working hard clandestinely to undermine the UN’s commitment to human rights. Chinese influence in the UNHRC is undoubtedly related to Wang Binying being thwarted by the US from securing WIPO’s director-generalship in 2020.

Furthermore, in the eyes of the Americans, the Belt and Road is yet another means by which China seeks to change the international order and elevate its own influence. It follows that when Chinese officials occupy important positions in the UN (including the UN DESA), America’s international standing would only be weakened. These calculations were a likely additional stimulus behind the US efforts against Wang Binying in 2020.

James Pooley, a former deputy director general of WIPO, claimed that to have China lead a global organisation dedicated to intellectual property protection would be “like appointing the fox to guard the hen house”.

The US launched its defensive attack with the European countries behind them, and exercised its clout to stop Wang from taking the helm at WIPO. Richard Gowan, the UN representative for the International Crisis Group, had told the media that Qu Dongyu being elected FAO’s director general was a hard blow to Washington. The Americans took their tough stance on WIPO because they did not wish to see the same thing happen again.

According to White House trade advisor Peter Navarro’s 23 February article in the Financial Times, “giving control [of WIPO] to a representative of China would be a terrible mistake”. In addition, he gauged that China’s deliberate move to take over WIPO was only part of its broader strategy that eyes control over the UN’s 15 specialised agencies. Elsewhere, James Pooley, a former deputy director general of WIPO, claimed that to have China lead a global organisation dedicated to intellectual property protection would be “like appointing the fox to guard the hen house”.

In any case, another round of elections for UN agencies will come in 2021. Leadership positions for the International Labour Organisation (ILO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), World Tourism Organisation (WTO), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and UNIDO will be up for grabs. Going forward, we can only expect more arm-wrestling between China and the US for influence in the UN.

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