June 24, 2020

The United Nations: An Emerging Battleground for Influence

Testimony Before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission

By Kristine Lee

Submitted Written Testimony

Introduction

Thank you very much for the opportunity to testify on China’s growing influence in the United Nations (UN). Since the beginning of the 21st century, China’s approach to the UN has gradually shifted away from that of an ascendant, regional actor seeking to gain legitimacy toward a more confident and activist role. Eager to expand its influence on the world stage in ways that serve its interests, Beijing has placed considerable resources behind an effort to present its leadership at the UN as a nimbler, more dynamic, and more reliable alternative to that of the United States. It is, in doing so, steering the UN away from its founding principles and turning it into a vehicle for advancing its narrow foreign policy aims.

The contours of China’s ambitions are clear. In a speech before the 19th Communist Party Congress in 2017, Xi Jinping laid out his vision for a “new era of great-power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” that would see “China moving closer to center stage and making greater contributions to mankind.” Xi reiterated in a 2018 address before the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs that China needed to take “an active part in leading the reform of the global governance system.” Though he spoke only in broad brush strokes about “democratizing international relations” and setting developing countries on equal footing, it demarcated a shift—that had been years in the making—away from China’s traditional defensive posture in the UN.

To further illuminate how these trends are unfolding, this written statement proceeds in five main parts: I begin by examining China’s goals and ambitions within the UN. I, then, assess the extent to which China’s growing activism within the UN is animated by competition within the United States. Third, I discuss Beijing’s tactics—particularly its formation of blocs with developing countries and other illiberal states—to advance its aims. Fourth, I evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of China’s approach. Finally, I conclude with a set of specific recommendations for the United States, in concert with like-minded nations, to push back on China where necessary.


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  1. My testimony draws heavily on language, analysis, and ideas from the following CNAS publication: Kristine Lee and Alexander Sullivan, “People’s Republic of the United Nations: China’s Emerging Revisionism in International Organizations,” (Center for a New American Security, May 2019), https://s3.amazonaws.com/files.cnas.org/documents/CNAS-Report-China-IO-final-web-b.pdf?mtime=20190513092354.
  2. Ann Kent, “China’s Participation in International Organizations,” in Yongjin Zhang and Greg Austin, eds., Power and Responsibility in Chinese Foreign Policy, (Acton, Australia: ANU Press, 2013), 134; Rush Doshi, “Hu’s to Blame for China’s Foreign Assertiveness?” Brookings Institution, January 22, 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/articles/hus-to-blame-for-chinas-foreign-assertiveness/.
  3. Xi Jinping, “Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Beijing, October 18, 2017, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/download/Xi_Jinping's_report_at_19th_CPC_National_Congress.pdf.
  4. Xinhua, “Xi urges breaking new ground in major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics,” June 24, 2018, http://xinhuanet.com/english/2018-06/24/c_137276269.htm.
  5. Xinhua, “Xi urges breaking new ground in major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.”

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