The World Health Organisation has come under China’s growing – and malign – influence
The Telegraph, 15 April, 2020
President Trump has announced that the United States will stop funding the World Health Organization (WHO), a specialized UN agency, saying its “Sino-centric” behavior has been a catalyst for the global spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
For the blissfully ignorant, this is merely the latest evidence of his “America First” approach toward foreign policy. However, for those who have been watching the UN system, Trump is absolutely correct. There is something rotten in the state of Denmark and we are going to have to confront it sooner or later.
For many of us, the Covid-19 crisis has been about how to deal with the impact of the disease and social isolation upon our immediate lives, but the crisis has also revealed the unsettling fact that one country, China, has quietly begun to amass influence over the wider UN system, and that in the case of immediate and pressing global emergencies, China’s priorities and protocols come first – over the lives of a great many citizens of this world.
Criticism of the WHO has particularly targeted its Director, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who is said to owe his appointment to China, for following Chinese preferences over internationally agreed guidelines – such as the International Health Regulations (IHR) – even going so far as to delay announcing it as a pandemic to avoid hurting China’s international standing. As Beijing’s was detaining its own doctors – early heroes against the disease – and suppressing geonomic research on the disease, Tedros was praising China for its “transparency” and “leadership”.
Perhaps more damningly, Taiwanese diplomats have claimed the WHO ignored early warnings in December about Covid-19 trasmission from its own experts – in order to please Beijing – indicating that we might have been saved this pandemic if the WHO had merely listened.
This corruption of the WHO’s function is symptomatic of a wider trend, which has seen Beijing take over one-third of the UN’s 15 specialized agencies, appointing its officials to important posts where they immediately beginning implementing “Sino-centric” policies, using a combination of arm-twisting and lobbying.
And while all countries seek to influence the global system through the UN, China’s influence has been particularly hostile toward the “liberal” character imbued into the system by countries like the US and UK in 1950s.
Consider the recent news that China that has been appointed to the Human Rights Council. This is the same nation that the BBC revealed had built concentration camps for millions of its Muslim Uyghurs in 2018, and it now holds the power to appoint human rights investigators to look at arbitrary detention, freedom of speech transgressions, and enforced disappearances – presumably because they are all areas where Beijing has excelled.
Consider too how Chinese officials – from Huawei – are said to be attempting to push through internet protocol “reforms” at the UN agency – the International Telecommunications Union – that could favour authoritarian approaches toward data. The Director General of ITU is another Chinese official.
Consider how it has sought to promote the Belt and Road Initiative – a Chinese form of “debt diplomacy” with geostrategic implications – in the UN’s Development Policy and Analysis Division. The Director of DPAD? Another Chinese official.
Then there has been China’s behavior under the rules of the World Trade Organization. The US helped China gain entry into that organization in December 2001, in return expected Beijing to gradually bring its state-run economy in line with free market principles. Instead, it has spent decades allowing Chinese companies to take their foreign competitors valuable intellectual property through joint ventures and prejudicial legal outcomes. Its Made in China:2025 policy sought to enshrine Chinese dominance in key strategic sectors in the global economy as a matter of state policy. There was little surprise that the US blocked its attempt to have one of its officials lead the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).
As Western nations struggle through the Covid-19 crisis, China has unfortunately blocked efforts by Estonia and others to discuss the virus at the UN Security Council, though it would make sense for the council to discuss the origins of the virus – if only to prevent future outbreaks.
Once Covid-19 subsides, the West will have to decide on what to do about China’s growing – and unfortunately malign – influence on the UN system: cut-and-run or fight for the integrity of the system. The latter won’t be easy: unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, China has deep pockets with which to win support. Sea ports, 5G networks, and hydropower dams give it sway in the UN General Assembly
However, the UN remains an essential liberal architecture, and it could be saved, if we were willing to expend the resources and political energy. I hope we are willing.