Washington – The viral video really does tell the story. Over the weekend, a senior adviser at the World Health Organization abruptly shut down an interview after being asked about Taiwan’s role in the organization. The episode has been interpreted correctly as a marker of how China has used the WHO as a tool in its diplomatic struggle to isolate and delegitimize a democratic Taiwan.
Yet China’s influence in the WHO is only a small part of a much larger story involving Beijing’s relationship to international organizations. For decades, U.S. officials hoped that bringing Beijing into those organizations would change China, by socializing it into the patterns of responsible global governance. They paid less attention to the danger that has now materialized — that China might change those organizations instead.
The logic behind America’s “responsible stakeholder” approach was that the best way to keep China from challenging the international order was to demonstrate that it could thrive within it. Encouraging Beijing to expand its role in international organizations — from the United Nations to the alphabet soup of bodies dealing with specific issues from international communications to civil air traffic — was crucial.
It would show Chinese officials the virtues of positive-sum cooperation in dealing with global challenges, from nuclear proliferation to management of the world economy. It would accustom Beijing to exercising leadership in a constructive, responsible fashion. It would promote, as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick argued in 2005, the emergence of “a China that not only adjusts to the international rules developed over the last century, but also joins us and others to address the challenges of the new century.”
The policy appeared to be working, for a while. A country that had once shunned international organizations now increasingly embraced them. China became one of the largest contributors to U.N. peacekeeping missions around the world. In 2018, President Xi Jinping pledged that Beijing would “take an active part in leading the reform of the global governance system,” as part of China’s commitment to building “a community with a shared future for humanity.”
But what Xi and other Chinese leaders meant was not what U.S. officials had in mind. Chinese officials had seen how international organizations could be used against it when Beijing found itself attacked in the U.N. after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. So Beijing came to see its role in these institutions as one of protecting and projecting: Protecting the dominance of the Chinese Communist Party at home, while projecting the party’s influence and values abroad.
China’s state press agency has acknowledged this in the candid but oblique language in which the regime often describes its aims: The purpose of participating in global governance is to “create a favorable environment” for the rise of a “great modern socialist country.”
It is only natural that China’s role in the WHO has garnered the most attention right now. As Beijing has raised its participation in, and contributions to, that organization, it has also wielded it as a diplomatic lever against Taiwan — allowing the Taiwanese to play a greater role when the island is ruled by leaders deemed friendly to China, and pushing it to the margins when those deemed hostile are in charge. And this strategy extends far beyond the WHO.
For example, China has employed its sway within the International Civil Aviation Organization, including the presence of Chinese in key leadership positions, to marginalize Taiwan by denying it permission to attend meetings. After a former Chinese official was elected secretary-general of the U.N. International Telecommunications Union in 2014, that body became far friendlier to Beijing’s Digital Silk Road project, which is meant to allow China to dominate the world’s most advanced communications networks, as well as its efforts to turn make the internet more conducive to authoritarian control.
Within the U.N. Human Rights Council, Chinese representatives have sought to shield Beijing from scrutiny of its abuses, while also promoting alternative concepts of human rights that stress state sovereignty, social harmony and other characteristics more suitable to autocracy than liberty.
Similarly, according to an analysis by Brett Schaefer of the Heritage Foundation, a Chinese head of the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs used his position to discriminate against people and organizations drawing attention to Beijing’s repression of the Uighur ethnic group in the far western region of Xinjiang. The Chinese government has also sought to position Chinese nationals at the head of Interpol, the World Intellectual Property Organization and other obscure but important bodies that quietly exercise influence in global affairs.
The Chinese regime, as the saying goes, may have dropped its Marxism but it has kept its Leninism — the tendency to see nearly all interactions as part of a fierce contest for power. Its goal has been to position itself near the center of these important international networks, not so much to strengthen global governance as to strengthen its own ability to shape global norms. Beijing realizes that this competition in rule-making and norm-shaping will be a central front in the struggle for global leadership in the 21st century.
The question is whether the United States realizes it, too. The Trump administration deserves credit for mounting a strong campaign to defeat Beijing’s candidate to lead the intellectual property body, averting the absurdity of the world’s foremost violator of intellectual property rights gaining greater power over global standards for patents and other aspects of international commerce. The U.S. State Department has drawn greater attention to China’s strategy and the imperative of countering it.
Yet there are also contradictory tendencies in the administration. Trump has withdrawn from the U.N.’s Human Rights Council and Economic, Social and Cultural Organization, undermined the World Trade Organization, and too often been dismissive of the international institutions and norms through which the U.S. has long exercised its own power. All this has created voids that China will exploit.
In cold geopolitical terms, the countries that invest in international organizations are most likely to reap the benefits of influence within them. It would be a sad irony of the U.S. forgot this fact at a time when China has most assuredly discovered it.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg columnist and a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
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