Argument

The United States Can’t Cede the U.N. to China

U.S. leadership is badly needed at this month’s U.N. General Assembly.

Attendees listen to U.S. President Donald Trump address the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York City on Sept 24.
Attendees listen to U.S. President Donald Trump address the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York City on Sept 24. Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

This week, diplomats and heads of state from around the world have descended on New York City for the 74th United Nations General Assembly. World leaders will discuss several important issues over the next few weeks. Arguably the most urgent is addressing the Chinese Communist Party’s malign influence in international organizations, including the United Nations. The U.S. delegation must make clear to its allies and partners the threat they face from China, and it must subsequently lead the global community in countering their indiscreet agenda.

The U.N. has 15 specialized agencies that support its work. Of those, four are led by Chinese nationals: the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). In comparison, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States combined direct the same number of these types of agencies.

On the surface, that may not seem problematic. The U.N. Charter requires its international civil servants take an oath to remain impartial and work at the behest of the U.N. leadership, not their home countries. China, however, has proved unwilling to abide by these regulations time and again.

For example, this year, footage from China Central Television showed Wu Hongbo, the former undersecretary-general of the United Nations and head of the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), admitting to prioritizing China’s national interest in his official capacity. During his leadership of the department, Wu also expelled the president of the World Uyghur Congress, Dolkun Isa, from the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, where he was attempting to speak about the oppression of Uighurs in China. Wu’s successor and the current head of the UNDESA, Liu Zhenmin, attempted to bar Isa from attending the same forum in 2018.

China also uses pressure on foreign governments to consolidate power within the U.N. In June, the country forgave about $78 million in debts owed by the Cameroonian government. Shortly after, Cameroon’s candidate for FAO director-general withdrew from the race. A Chinese national now serves in that capacity instead.

Chinese officials have targeted U.S. national security interests as well. A Chinese national took the helm of the ICAO in 2015, and now Taiwan’s request to attend this year’s conference has been denied, leaving a nation that is a major aviation hub out of the conversations dictating the standards and practices of aviation.

The ITU, which sets some of the global standards for communication networks and technology, is led by Houlin Zhao, who ran unopposed to direct the body for a second term. In a 2018 report to the U.S. Congress, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission stated: “International 5G standards will be set by 2019, facilitating large-scale commercial deployment expected by 2020. The Chinese government is encouraging its companies to play a greater role in international 5G standards organizations to ensure they set global standards; such leadership may result in higher revenues and exports from internationally accepted intellectual property and technology and more global influence over future wireless technology and standards development.”

The U.S. delegation and those of its allies must make their presence known at the General Assembly. They cannot cede leadership to China and should seek to helm these important agencies themselves. By the end of 2021, there will be nine elections for the heads of U.N. specialized agencies and five for major U.N. funds or programs. None of these agencies, funds, or programs are headed by Americans. The United States must show up in order to compete.

It is unreasonable to expect that every U.N. agency, fund, and program be run by an American. However, it is past time for the world to recognize China’s efforts to bend the U.N. system in support of its own authoritarian agenda. The United States’ friends and allies should join it in resisting this corruption and work to counter it.

Michael McCaul is a U.S. congressman from Texas and the lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He formerly served as the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security for six years.

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