Bolton Builds Anti-China Campaign at the U.N.
The U.S. national security advisor, who has largely ignored the United Nations, is suddenly concerned that Beijing has too much influence there.
John Bolton, the U.S. national security advisor, is leading a campaign to contain China’s growing influence in the United Nations and other international organizations, a move that reflects growing alarm that Beijing is taking advantage of the U.S. retreat from the world stage to build diplomatic alliances and promote its own global interests.
The effort is one part of a broader bid by the Trump administration to try to stall China’s rise as a global power, breaking with decades of U.S. diplomatic efforts to manage China’s inevitable emergence as a responsible global competitor. In recent months, the United States has moved beyond trade sanctions, pressing European governments to bar the Chinese telecom giant Huawei from building the region’s infrastructure for high-speed 5G internet access.
Bolton’s new push to contain China’s influence at the U.N. is ironic given the national security advisor’s efforts to sideline the international institution. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration, backed stripping the U.S. ambassador post at the U.N. of cabinet rank, supported the withdrawal of the United States from the U.N. Human Rights Council, and threatened to sanction the International Criminal Court if it tried to prosecute American soldiers.
For the past two years, European allies have warned the Trump administration that its withdrawal from a range of international organizations and agreements, including those dealing with climate, human rights, and migration, had paved the way for China and other powers to fill the diplomatic vacuum. While the White House has no interest in reasserting leadership on those fronts, it has stepped up its efforts to prevent China from doing so.
At the U.N., U.S. diplomats are under instructions to foil Beijing’s bid to burnish its soft power credentials and promote Chinese President Xi Jinping’s philosophical precepts, referred to as Xi Jinping Thought. They have orders to scrub Chinese buzzwords or phrases—including “win-win cooperation,” “people-to-people connectivity,” and “creating a community of shared future for mankind”—from U.N. resolutions. The U.S. concern, which is shared by some of its European colleagues, is that China is seeking to gradually alter the language of U.N. diplomacy to conform with its own diplomatic vision.
Diplomats at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations are also charged with rolling back China’s effort to secure international diplomatic backing for Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar economic cooperation program designed to revitalize the famed Silk Road trade route that once linked China and the West.
“We have serious concerns about China’s actions, which highlight self-serving behavior and its inability to play a leadership role in multilateral institutions,” National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis told Foreign Policy. “The United States continues to lead at the UN, based on our values and principles.”
The United States has secured a measure of backing from the European Union, which agreed last year to seek to check China’s efforts to promote its brand of soft power at the United Nations. But the Europeans are looking to avoid an outright confrontation with Beijing. And their long-term support for U.S. policy on China is considered tenuous as key European countries, including Greece and Italy, have decided to participate in Belt and Road projects.
The White House, meanwhile, faces an uphill battle to overcome broad support for the Belt and Road Initiative at the United Nations, where U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and the heads of U.N. agencies view the Chinese infrastructure project as a vital piece of its own effort to scale back poverty in the developing world. Even the top two U.S. officials in the U.N. system, both nominated by President Donald Trump, have praised the Belt and Road Initiative. China’s willingness to provide billions of dollars in loans to struggling countries appears to be trumping U.S. warnings about the potential perils of indebtedness.
The dispute reflects the emergence of an increasingly confrontational approach to China by the White House since Bolton’s appointment to the White House’s top national security job last April.
The United States fears the Belt and Road Initiative is a cover for extending China’s economic, military, and geopolitical power across Asia, Europe, and Africa. The U.S. State Department has warned developing countries that China’s investments in their roads and ports amounts to a debt trap that will render them subject to China’s whims.
In a December 2018 speech on the Trump administration’s Africa policy, Bolton voiced concerns that both China and Russia were seeking to target investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the United States.
“China uses bribes, opaque agreements, and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands,” Bolton said. “Such predatory actions are sub-components of broader Chinese strategic initiatives, including ‘One Belt, One Road’—a plan to develop a series of trade routes leading to and from China with the ultimate goal of advancing Chinese global dominance.
“In Africa, we are already seeing the disturbing effects of China’s quest to obtain more political, economic, and military power.”
Bolton portrayed China’s commercial and military enterprises in Africa—including a military base in Djibouti and plans to acquire a strategically located Red Sea port there—as a threat to America’s military and economic interests. Should a Chinese state-owned enterprise acquire Djibouti’s Doraleh Container Terminal, he said, “the balance of power in the Horn of Africa—astride major arteries of maritime trade between Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia—would shift in favor of China.”
American diplomats at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations have had instructions from Washington since 2017 to resist the inclusion of any references to China’s chief soft-power priorities, promoting Xi Jinping Thought and the Belt and Road Initiative, in U.N. documents. But they accepted trade-offs to ensure, for instance, that they got tough language on counterterrorism.
But the United States has drawn sharp red lines since Bolton hired Elizabeth Erin Walsh, a China hawk, to manage multilateral affairs in the National Security Council. She came to the job with an express mandate to contain Chinese influence at the U.N. and other international organizations.
Last month, the United States butted heads with China over the adoption of a U.N. Security Council resolution extending the U.N. mandate over Afghanistan.
China insisted that the resolution include a provision urging the strengthening of regional economic cooperation efforts, including the Belt and Road Initiative, in Afghanistan’s economic development. The United States agreed to such language in a previous resolution in March 2018. This time, it said no.
“The U.S. has disliked this language for some time, but it was clear during these negotiations that it had become a red line,” said one U.N. Security Council diplomat.
The council had to settle for a temporary six-month renewal of the mission’s mandate. Each side blamed the other for the deadlock.
“China held the resolution hostage and insisted on making it about Chinese national political priorities rather than the people of Afghanistan,” Jonathan Cohen, the acting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council on March 15.
China’s deputy U.N. envoy, Wu Haitao, countered that the Belt and Road Initiative is “aimed at achieving shared development and prosperity. It has nothing to do with geopolitics.”
He accused the U.S. delegation of having “poisoned the atmosphere” in negotiations that have long enjoyed consensus support at the United Nations.
“The Belt and Road Initiative has been widely welcomed by the international community,” he added, noting that 123 countries and 29 international organizations have signed cooperation agreements to jointly develop the initiative.
Indeed, the U.N. has largely embraced China’s investment program, saying the billions spent on ports, roads, and rail could help elevate standards of living in the developing world and help the U.N. goal of severely scaling back global poverty.
The two most senior American officials in the U.N. system, David Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Program, and Henrietta Fore, the executive director of UNICEF, have praised the initiative.
“The vision of the Belt and Road Initiative is also a vision for children,” Fore said last June in a high-level symposium on the links between the Chinese trade and infrastructure initiative and the U.N.’s sustainable development goals. “Let us join forces to make this vision a reality.”
She said the Chinese project provides an opportunity to improve child survival, nutrition, development, and protection, with a special emphasis on fighting child poverty. “We invite China to tap into UNICEF’s expertise in program design and delivery. … UNICEF can help China scale up more results quickly and accelerate progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals,” Fore said.
Following the statement, Nikki Haley, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, reached out to Fore to voice concern over her remarks and to remind of her of U.S. opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative, according to a diplomatic source.
UNICEF, the State Department, and the White House did not respond to questions about Haley’s discussion with Fore.
But UNICEF’s spokesperson, Najwa Mekki, told FP: “In our relationships with member states, we prioritize children and their best interests and share our views and expertise on issues affecting them. As a children’s agency, we want to see children’s health, education, nutrition and protection programming benefit from investments in infrastructure.”
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch