Representational image. (REUTERS)
Representational image. (REUTERS)

China expanded influence in UN bodies over past decade: Study

China’s focus in these efforts has been on bodies that help set international standards in order to boost the fortunes of Chinese companies and to favour Beijing’s projects
PUBLISHED ON MAY 27, 2021 05:37 PM IST

China has taken numerous steps over the past decade to expand its influence in the United Nations (UN) and related bodies, including a nearly 350% increase in voluntary donations to these organisations, according to a new study released on Thursday.

At the same time, China increased its influence in crucial non-UN multilateral bodies and is now in a “dominant position” in several such organisations in terms of personnel and funding, including the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO).

China’s focus in these efforts has been on bodies that help set international standards in order to boost the fortunes of Chinese companies and to favour Beijing’s projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, says the study by Mumbai-based foreign policy think tank Gateway House.

The study cited UN figures to show China’s expanding influence has been enabled by the country’s increased monetary contributions to the world body – its mandatory contributions as a UN member rose by 1,096% between 2010 and 2019, while voluntary donations increased by 346% from $51 million in 2010 to $172 million in 2019.

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The mandatory contributions and voluntary donations combined made China the fifth largest donor to the UN, with the country’s total funding rising from $190 million in 2010 to $1.6 billion in 2019.

“The voluntary contributions enable the UN’s funds and programmes agencies to run their special projects, as only administrative, daily expenses are covered by the UN’s core budget. So, when China makes a $7.5 million contribution to the UNDP, it can influence the way development projects are implemented,” the study said.

China directly heads four of 15 principal agencies of the UN – ITU, UNIDO, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) – and Chinese deputies are present in nine of these agencies, including the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), International Maritime Organisation (IMO), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and World Health Organization (WHO).

The study noted ITU sets global standards for telecommunications, where China’s Huawei is a major player. ITU also has Chinese representatives serving two terms. “This ensures that Chinese national champions like Huawei and its standards become embedded and implemented by UN agencies engaged in development work in sparsely penetrated markets like the African continent, the Pacific, and South and Southeast Asia,” the study said.

An example is the acceptance of blockchain standards for finance proposed at ITU by the People’s Bank of China, China Academy of Information and Communications Technology and Huawei, reflecting China’s efforts to supplant the West as standard setter.

“UNIDO was formed to encourage industrialisation in the developing world but its importance has waned as countries found it unhelpful, leaving China in charge. China immediately connected UNIDO to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which UNIDO now endorses,” the study said.

“China’s positioning at ICAO, which sets air navigation and safety standards, ensured that during the pandemic, Taiwan was excluded from all discussions – just as it was with the WHO, over which China has a disproportionate influence,” it added.

The study also concluded China’s participation in UN bodies has “grown more sophisticated over the years”, with the country choosing “clusters of agencies to lead, whose work can be interwoven with and are interlinked to its own domestic agendas like ‘Made in China 2025’, and the rise of Chinese companies”.

Kartik Ashta, Gateway House’s lead researcher for the study, said China focused on multilateral bodies that were often not part of the public discourse but play a key role in setting global standards. “These are bodies most people don’t often talk about but China used them to set standards and get ahead with its agenda,” he said.

“Other countries are definitely realising the impact of these moves and some have taken steps to counter China’s action,” he said, pointing to the US renegotiating the Postal Treaty in 2019 to increase stamp costs on post and mail originating from China. “This was done after it was found it was cheaper to send a package from China to the US than between two destinations within the US,” he added.

The study recommended steps that India can take to counter China’s moves, including a more proactive role as a rule-maker, setting up and leading its own multilaterals such as the International Solar Alliance and Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, increasing voluntary contributions to agencies and bodies where it believes it can play a larger role, and sponsoring Indian nationals for influential policy positions in the UN system.

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