NEW YORK – As the United States has increasingly backed away from multilateral leadership and engagement at the United Nations, China in particular has stepped up to fill the vacuum, according to diplomats and insiders, while countries such as Japan are left on uncertain footing.
“China has become much more eager to assert itself and look like a leader in the U.N. system,” said Richard Gowan, a senior fellow at the United Nations University, said. “It’s a strategic shift, and at a moment where the United States is pulling back, China has a lot of opportunities to make its power felt.”
Part of China’s rise in the international body is a direct result of its growing financial prosperity. In the calculation of each nation’s funding obligations for the U.N. budget from 2019-2021 — an assessment that factors in gross national income, debt adjustments and other variables — China has come out ahead of Japan as the second-largest contributor, behind only the United States.
China’s increased financing of both the general operating budget and international peacekeeping missions gives it additional clout, while Tokyo has slipped to the third spot in general funding for the first time since the 1980s.
Beijing now contributes 12.01 percent of the general budget, up from 7.92 percent in the previous three-year period. Japan’s share is down to 8.56 percent from 9.68 percent previously. The current U.S. contribution level is 22.00 percent.
At its peak, Tokyo footed 20.57 percent of the general budget in 2000 as it pushed to gain a permanent seat on an expanded Security Council. Amid the steady rise of China, which eclipsed Japan as the second-largest funder of peacekeeping operations in 2016, some fear the window for Tokyo to achieve such reform is closing.
The shifts in relative influence occur against a backdrop of U.S. President Donald Trump shunning multilateral engagement, including by curbing Washington’s financing of the international body he once described as “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.”
In addition to limiting its contribution to a quarter of the peacekeeping budget rather than roughly 28 percent as assessed, Washington under Trump has backed out of the Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate agreement, refused to participate in a global compact for migration, withdrawn from the Human Rights Council, slashed funding to Palestinian refugees and moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Such decisions have been viewed as spurning international cooperation and leave the U.S. mission increasingly isolated.
“In the last two years (China) has really, really raised its presence here and it is now pushing very hard for the U.N. to regularly endorse the ‘One Belt, (One) Road’ approach to development,” Gowan said, referring to China’s massive program of foreign infrastructure investment, which critics see as a cover for Beijing to expand its economic influence.
Making a significant push in 2015 to ramp up China’s international commitments, President Xi Jinping pledged to establish a $1 billion peace and development fund, earmarked $100 million for African Union military assistance and promised to contribute a standby peacekeeping force of 8,000 troops.
The standby force, which Beijing finished assembling last autumn, is in addition to more than 2,500 Chinese personnel already serving in eight operations mainly in hot spots like South Sudan, Mali, Darfur and Congo.
With the latter figure alone, China was already the 10th-largest contributor of boots on the ground, exceeding the combined number of troops from Britain, France, Russia and the United States, the other four permanent members of the Security Council.
“China is investing in peacekeeping because it has economic stakes in countries like South Sudan and the Congo,” Gowan said. “Everyone uses peacekeeping to advance their own national interests, and it is not completely sincere to say that China shouldn’t.”
As China exerts greater influence, some member states have raised concerns over Beijing’s views on human rights, including its endorsement of defunding human rights officers for peacekeeping missions and its reluctance to bring up rights issues, such as those in North Korea, in various U.N. forums.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and other officials have nonetheless backed China in its international development efforts as the country pushes for references to “win-win cooperation” — a phrase closely tied to Beijing’s presentation of “One Belt, One Road” — in U.N. resolutions and statements.
Speaking at the China-Africa Cooperation Summit last September, Guterres praised China’s engagement abroad and its “commitment to sharing its successes through different initiatives” including “One Belt, One Road.” The United States, India and nations in Europe are among those that have pushed back against the initiative.
China has been less vocal on such matters in the Security Council. During its November presidency of the 15-member council, Ambassador Ma Zhaoxu led a rare working visit to his country with stops to tour Guangzhou and Shenzhen to mark the 40th anniversary of China’s opening and reform.
Gowan said that in spite of Beijing’s apparent “public relations moment,” he believes Japan’s role remains strong, especially in the area of aid and the support it offers throughout the U.N. system.
“It is not clear to me that it hugely affects Japan’s diplomatic position at the U.N.,” said Gowan. “Japan has always been overshadowed by the United States, not China.”
Robert Zuber, director of Global Action to Prevent War, also differentiates Tokyo’s motives in saying Japan is “not looking for voids or gaps to fill” but is “looking for things that could work better” in areas such as disarmament where it has expertise.
“I don’t think Japan is going to lose its place here,” the seasoned U.N. watcher added.
“If we propose good ideas and take a leadership role, we can maintain our presence and be respected,” Japanese Ambassador Koro Bessho told reporters. “We will continue our efforts at the U.N.”