The report, published in May, highlights the “creeping capture” of international organisations by Beijing through steady acquisition of key official positions, use of economic leverage and aggressive diplomacy or “bullying tactics”.
“We have seen attempts by countries such as China to seize control of strategically important organisations and fundamentally redefine the once universally agreed principles on which they are based. This allows multilateral organisations to be weaponised against the founding principles upon which they were built,” the report by the House of Commons committee — which is made up of 11 MPs — said.
Growing Clout At UN
The report, titled “In the room: the UK’s role in multilateral diplomacy”, focuses on six major multilateral organisations where China has been trying to wield its influence, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), Interpol and United Nations Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
The report said it found several examples where China increasingly used aggressive means, including bilateral economic leverage, to coerce states to back their position or candidates and then used the organisations to shift policies away from the cooperation the organisations were created to promote.
A case in point here is the election of the ninth director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2019.
Just a few days prior to the election, China waived Cameroonian government’s $78 million debt. Coincidentally, Cameroon’s nominated candidate pulled out of the race shortly afterwards and the post went to China.
In fact, Chinese diplomats now head four out of the 15 specialised UN bodies while no other nation leads more than one.
The International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Telecommunication Union, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the UN Industrial Development Organization are all headed by Chinese nationals.
China’s efforts to gain control of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) were scuttled by the US in 2019 after the candidate it backed won the post.
Another report by Mumbai-based foreign policy think tank Gateway House said that China holds deputy positions in as many as 9 of the 15 UN agencies.
It said that China also enjoys influence at some of these organisations through “proxies”. For instance, Tedros Adhenoum Ghebreysus, the current director general of the WHO, was elected with China’s support in 2017 and is the former health and foreign minister of Ethiopia, which is one of the largest recipients of Chinese investments in Africa.
The WHO was previously headed for 10 years by Margaret Chan, from Hong Kong. The WHO’s delayed warnings and travel restrictions regarding the pandemic in China, is a globally devastating outcome borne of China’s influence.
The UK report said that China also uses “bullying” as part of its aggressive diplomacy to gain influence at organisations like the OHCHR, Human Rights Commission and even the WHO.
Influence Through Money
But besides aggressive diplomacy, China is also pushing hard to gain strategic leverage in several of these organisation through money power.
“The membership-based multilaterals have two types of funding: ‘Assessed’ – a formula-based amount depending on a number of factors including a country’s GDP and financial capacity; and voluntary, which includes countries donating directly to the UN, its agencies and funds and programmes, or NGO supporting programmes that align with their goals,” the Gateway House study said.
It said that China is catching up in both these forms of contributions. It highlights that China’s voluntary contributions have increased by nearly 346% from 2010 to 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 found.
What’s interesting is that China is not spending nearly as much as the US and some of the other countries.
“They (Chinese) give as little money as will buy influence,” Rear Admiral Kenneth Bernard told US-based magazine The Atlantic.
Take the WHO for instance.
The UK report said that China seized the opportunity created by the Trump administration’s decision to cut funding to international organisations or withdraw altogether, as in the case of the WHO.
“President Biden has taken important steps in reversing these positions; however it may take longer to regain the influence lost,” the report said.
The graph shows that US and UK’s contributions to the WHO dwarfs China’s. But despite this, the report observed that Beijing’s sway at the global health body is disproportionate to its funding and representation in the secretariat.
It said that WHO is vulnerable to interference and manipulation through funding, an area where China may hold the aces.
“Dr Yanzhong Huang of the Council on Foreign Relations explained that China is increasing voluntary donations to multilateral organisations such as the WHO. There is evidence the Chinese government has used the lack of leadership by the US to pursue a very bilateral agenda,” the report said.
In fact, the report suggested that all six organisations it analysed suffered from a lack of core funding.
It said there was evidence at Interpol, OHCHR and WHO specifically about the impact of increased reliance on voluntary earmarked donations, and the potential for this being used as leverage.
“In some cases, organisations have exercised poor judgement in their choice of funding partners, choices that have damaged their reputation,” the report noted.
According to the report, the agendas of these multilateral organisations can be significantly influenced by their donors, even those who give comparatively little support.
It pointed out how China and Russia, despite having relatively low levels of contributions to organisations like Interpol, are able arm-twist these organisations to their own advantage. In Interpol’s case, the reported raised concerns over attempted Red Notice abuse by certain nations to target political opponents.
It said that OHCHR is one of the few organisations appears relatively resilient to states attempting to influence its agenda through funding. However, the OHCHR is facing challenges with regards to funding due to its “uncompromising stance and outspoken criticism of governments”.
The report pointed out that lack of sufficient funding may lead to increasing reliance on voluntary earmarked contributions, including those from private donors, which may post a threat to the neutrality of the organisation.
While the report does not focus on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), recent China efforts indicate it’s trying to expand its decision-making power at these global financial institutions.
Reuters had reported in 2019 that China’s bid to topple Japan as the second most influential member of IMF after the US was countered by Washington. The move would have given China – which is the third most influential at IMF – more voting rights.
In 2018, China became the World Bank’s third most influential member following the international financial institution’s latest capital increase. This increased China’s clout within the financial institution, giving it highest voting power after US and Japan.
However, Gateway House study said that the World Bank and IMF remain firmly in the grip of Western powers like the US and EU.