Mixed success for China in United Nations influence efforts
Efforts by China to shape and influence the United Nations have had mixed success, but reflect a growing interest by the world’s second superpower in having a greater say in the global institution, a new Lowy Institute Analysis finds.
The report, titled Mixed report card: China’s influence at the United Nations, has been written by Dr Courtney Fung and Shing-hon Lam. Utilising data on UN funding, staffing, voting and language, they find that China’s efforts have not yet resulted in the influence and prestige that it seeks, but that the People’s Republic is continuing to extend its efforts at the United Nations to achieve tangible leverage.
“China has come a long way from a low base at the United Nations,” the authors write. “Beijing now recognises the United Nations as a useful tool for its ambitions to redesign global governance.”
Among the key findings are:
- After an initial period of diplomatic ambivalence at the United Nations, China now broadly seeks to reform the UN system from within through its “shared future” global governance vision — an agenda that downplays universal values in favour of championing the primacy of states.
- To that end, China uses existing UN structures and rules, no longer under-utilising the power afforded to it within the UN system, including as a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council.
- However, China’s contributions do not always translate into successful influence at the United Nations. Its efforts across various domains — whether in terms of funding, staffing, voting alignment, or drafting of UN language — often yield mixed results.
“China is still learning how to translate material contributions into tangible influence,” the authors write. “The liberal values that have been at the very core of the United Nations since its founding are remarkably durable, with support from other leading states, UN officials, and civil society largely counterbalancing efforts by China and a like-minded cohort of primarily non-democratic countries to refocus the UN agenda and mission.”
Fung and Lam recommend that stakeholders interested in the impact of China’s influence and motives at the United Nations:
- Gain a better understanding of China’s contributions at the United Nations relative to those of other member states, especially other Security Council permanent members.
- Engage Beijing regarding its vision for global governance, and work to shape China’s approach in areas in which it is yet to deeply engage, such as refugee management.
- Articulate an inclusive multilateral vision for a rules-based international order that specifies conditions under which China’s UN contributions are embraced, rather than viewed with concern.
The Lowy Institute’s Director of Research Hervé Lemahieu said that the paper’s analysis provides a methodologically solid basis for considering China’s role at the United Nations. “We often hear concern about China’s approach to the world body, but there has been limited visibility of its success or otherwise. This paper offers the most comprehensive baseline survey of China’s contributions and influence at the UN to date. If we care about strengthening a rules-based international order, we will also have to do better at articulating how China best fits into that order.”
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Dr Courtney J. Fung is a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute, an associate professor in the Department of Security Studies & Criminology at Macquarie University, and an associate at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University. Her research focuses on how rising powers, such as China and India, address the norms and provisions for a global security order. She is the author of China and Intervention at the UN Security Council: Reconciling Status (Oxford University Press, 2019). She holds a PhD in International Relations from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.
Shing-hon Lam is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he specialises in International Relations. He earned his Master’s in International Relations from the University of Chicago and BSocSc in Politics and Public Administration from the University of Hong Kong. His latest research explores the influence of member states in international organisations with a focus on China.
ACCESS THE REPORT
The report is published at the Lowy Institute website from 2230 AEDT (1130 UTC) on Sunday 18 December 2022.
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