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China Enlists U.N. to Promote Its Belt and Road Project
Top United Nations officials are helping sell Xi Jinping’s signature foreign-policy initiative.
Speaking at an African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last July, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed suggested a way for African leaders to boost their economies and end decades of strife: sign up to participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a plan to invest a trillion dollars or more into the construction of ports, roads, and railways across dozens of countries from East Asia to East Africa.
“We must work to take advantage of one of the world’s largest infrastructure initiatives,” Mohammed urged at the summit’s opening ceremony. “This is an opportunity not just to provide alternatives to silencing the guns for our people but one that will keep our assets both human and natural on the continent building our tomorrow today.”
The promotion highlighted the U.N.’s curious role in China’s public relations campaign to sell the Belt and Road to the developing world. In speech after speech, top U.N. officials, including Secretary-General António Guterres, have sung its praises in terms that echo Chinese government talking points, portraying the Belt and Road Initiative as a vital pillar in a U.N.-sponsored plan to tackle poverty around the world by the year 2030.
The Chinese initiative, Guterres said in a speech before the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in May 2017, holds “immense potential” and promises greater market access for “countries yearning to become more integrated with the global economy.”
U.N. support for the Chinese project comes just as Beijing is facing growing criticism for imposing unsustainable debt burdens on poor countries and feeding suspicions that the program is a cover for projecting China’s economic and military interests.
In March, then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that Chinese “predatory loan practices” were encouraging dependency in African nations and “undercut[ting] their sovereignty.” European Union officials and European leaders have sounded the alarm about the political implications of greater Chinese investment, especially in Southern Europe. And China’s Asian neighbors are increasingly alarmed by Beijing’s checkbook diplomacy that threatens to upend the military balance across the Indo-Pacific region.
The United Nations, in contrast, has embraced the Belt and Road, which offers the prospect of trillions of dollars in desperately needed infrastructure investment at a time when the United States is cutting back foreign assistance.
“It’s an international stamp of approval to the Belt and Road Initiative at a time when it is under fire,” says Elizabeth Economy, a China scholar with the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State.
By joining up with China, U.N. officials contend, they can help ensure that the benefits of Chinese investment trickle down to the world’s poorest and help alleviate poverty. “The United Nations cannot ignore or be passive about this global plan,” said a spokesperson for the U.N. Development Programme, which has a policy of not naming their spokespeople.
China formally unveiled its Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, outlining a staggeringly ambitious plan to link China by sea and land to more than 60 countries across Asia, Europe, and Africa. The blueprint reimagines ancient Silk Road trade routes that linked Eastern merchants and Western markets. There is a land-based belt, across Central Asia to Western Europe, and a maritime Silk Road snaking across the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean.
In a July 7, 2016, meeting with then-U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Chinese President Xi Jinping argued that the Belt and Road project could help the U.N. implement its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a set of ambitious sustainable development goals, including the eradication of poverty.
The story of how Beijing subsequently rallied the U.N. behind its Belt and Road Initiative is a case study in how a rising China has flexed its diplomatic muscle in an organization that has been dominated by the United States and its European allies for decades.
Drawing on an extensive network of Chinese nationals employed by the United Nations, China has effectively steered the international organization into embracing one country’s signature foreign-policy initiative, a program that has the potential to alter the geostrategic balance of power at the U.N.
For years, political appointees from Britain, France, and the United States have held monopolies on the top U.N. humanitarian, peacekeeping, and political jobs. Since 2007, China has held the top position in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, or DESA, long considered a U.N. backwater that organized conferences and wrote economic case studies for poor countries.
Under Chinese leadership, the department, which is currently led by former Chinese Ambassador Liu Zhenmin, has served as a quasi-Chinese fiefdom that bolsters Beijing’s claim to global leadership in development, according to several U.N. officials and diplomats.
“DESA is a Chinese enterprise,” says one European diplomat. “Everybody knows it and everybody accepts it.” Zhenmin declined an interview request.
In May 2016, China signed a 10-year agreement with the U.N. to invest $20 million a year into a U.N. Peace and Development Trust Fund, half of which would be earmarked for programs that support U.N. sustainable development goals.
Under the terms of the arrangement, the fund’s steering committee advises the U.N. secretary-general on projects. Zhenmin and three Chinese government officials sit on the steering committee.
Following the establishment of the fund, China’s State Information Center asked DESA to conduct a study into how the Belt and Road Initiative could help the U.N. meet its development goals. In June 2016, Pingfan Hong, a Chinese national who serves as one of DESA’s top economists, conducted the study, concluding the “essential spirit” of the Belt and Road Initiative was “to a large extent in line” with the U.N. blueprint for reducing global poverty by the year 2030.
In September, 2016, Helen Clark, then administrator of the U.N. Development Programme, signed the first Memorandum of Understanding with China, pledging cooperation on the Belt and Road. At the time, Clark was in the heat of a campaign for U.N. secretary-general and was seeking China’s support in the vote, which ended on Oct. 6 of that year.
In a response to questions, Clark writes that “the Belt and Road Initiative represents a powerful platform for economic growth and regional cooperation, involving more than 4 billion people, many of whom live in developing countries. It can serve as an important catalyst and accelerator for the sustainable development goals.”
Asked if China urged her to support its initiative during the campaign, Clark says, “There was absolutely no, repeat — absolutely no, connection with my campaign to be UNSG — no mention by China, no mention by me.”
Clark says the decision to sign the memorandum of understanding came from the Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific — which is headed by UNDP’s top Chinese official, Haoliang Xu. Xu declined a request to discuss UNDP’s agreement with China.
But Clark added: “I take responsibility for agreements signed on my watch, albeit it on the advice of UNDP staff. I agreed to the MOU because of the importance of advocating for incorporation of human development benefits in the Belt and Road initiative.”
The UNDP has also produced a cartoon advertisement promoting the Belt and Road. And other parts of the United Nations, like the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which signed its own cooperation agreement with Beijing last summer, have seen a spike in Chinese funding in the past year.
Hong, however, has in the past denounced nascent regional trade agreements, singling out the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership as unfairly favorable to U.S. and EU countries and “discriminatory” towards developing countries left outside the pacts. (With the election of Donald Trump as president, the United States, which drove the creation of the TPP, has since left the trade pact, and the trans-Atlantic pact remains moribund.)
Hong declined to be interviewed for this piece, but in a brief email exchange he downplayed the significance of his role in shaping U.N. thinking about the Belt and Road Initiative, noting that his draft paper was “a pure ‘theoretical exercise.’” He wrote in an email that he has not “followed up on the development of the Belt and Road” Initiative since. But he delivered the keynote address for an international conference in Vienna on Belt and Road in September 2017.
That conference was hosted by the U.N. Industrial Development Organization, which is headed by Li Yong, a former Chinese vice minister in China’s finance ministry, and the Finance Center for South-South Cooperation, which is headed by a former top Chinese banking official, Cai E’sheng.
China’s ambitious plans address an undeniable need for investment across Eurasia; developing Asia alone needs at least $26 trillion in new investment in power plants, roads, and the like, according to the Asian Development Bank. And while entities such as the ADB and the World Bank are investing in infrastructure projects across the region, their outlays pale in comparison to the trillion-dollar visions in Beijing.
“From the U.N. perspective, China not only brings money to the table, it brings energy, it brings initiative, and it brings the capacity,” Economy notes, saying that the overwhelming majority of projects are run by Chinese companies. “They can deliver. They’ve got ideas, they’ve got the plans, and they can implement.”
Economy acknowledges that there are shortcomings in China’s infrastructure plan. It includes weaker environmental standards, and in many cases the projects Beijing pushes don’t always match what the recipient countries need. And Chinese state-owned firms so far dominate most of the activity on the Belt and Road.
Still, it could help meet a desperate need for new investment, and Economy urges the United States and its partners to work with China to upgrade standards and attract international, private-sector companies to join the effort.
“We should work with China to make this better,” she says. “We don’t have an alternative.”