For many years, the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September was a centerpiece of U.S. global leadership. President Barack Obama’s administration, for example, used the occasion to galvanize international action on issues such as climate change and refugee resettlement.

But when presidents and prime ministers gather in New York starting this week, they will do so under the auspices of an organization that is undergoing a profound transformation. The United States has let go of the wheel, and Beijing stands poised to take hold of it.

Eager to expand its influence on the world stage in ways that serve its interests, China has placed considerable resources behind an effort to present its leadership at the UN as a nimbler, more dynamic alternative to that of the United States. In the past few years alone, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has positioned its officials to head up four of the UN’s 15 specialized agencies, while the United States leads only one. It has also advanced more than two dozen memorandums of understanding in support of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and mobilized a consortium of illiberal states to tamp down international criticism of its repression of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang Province.

The United States has responded to China’s rising profile in only a piecemeal fashion, in part because Washington has been busy recalibrating its own relationship with the international body. The administration of President Donald Trump has passed through numerous ambassadors to the UN in a short time, while unilaterally withdrawing the United States from certain UN agencies and repudiating multilateral institutions more broadly.

With China seeking to steer the United Nations away from its founding principles, however, the United States can’t afford to sit back. A China-dominated UN would only lead to the steady erosion of U.S. values and interests in matters that range from nonproliferation to sustainable development. If the Trump administration is serious about competing strategically with China, it will have to step up its game on this highest international stage.

People’s Republic of Turtle Bay

For decades, China’s role at the United Nations was largely one of spoiler. Through the international body, Beijing aimed primarily to stymie the efforts of the United States and other democratic powers to impose a liberal vision on the world. Deng Xiaoping, the former leader of China, gave voice to the worldview behind these efforts in a 1974 address to the United Nations General Assembly. He denounced the United States’ “vain [pursuit] of world hegemony” and cautioned against the establishment of “spheres of influence by any country.”

But as China’s power and influence grew, its approach to international organizations evolved. Today, under President Xi Jinping, China has left behind the defensive posture that once defined its role at the United Nations. In a speech last year, Xi called for China to take “an active part in leading the reform of the global governance system.” 

Beijing is using the United Nations as a platform for legitimizing authoritarian rule.

China is doubling down on the United Nations at a time of U.S. retrenchment. In 2011, for instance, the United States cut off $80 million in annual funding to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)—about 22 percent of its entire budget. China raced to fill the void, pledging millions of dollars in extrabudgetary support for education programs. Beijing has increased its monetary contributions to the United Nations fivefold in the past decade, touting itself in state-sponsored narratives as a “champion of multilateralism.”

China’s investment has earned it clout—something that Beijing could have used just to protect itself from criticism over its policies in Xinjiang and Tibet, and to isolate Taiwan. But the CCP has advanced a more ambitious agenda, defending beleaguered autocrats in Venezuela and Syria and promoting the view that respect for “sovereignty” should allow governments to disavow individual and minority claims in the name of internal security. China has used the UN’s Human Rights Council, the very body tasked with holding human rights violators to account, to warp and denude the concept of universal values, arguing that each “country may choose its own […] model of human rights protection in the context of its national circumstances.” In short, Beijing is using the United Nations as a platform for legitimizing authoritarian rule.

Personnel Is Policy

China has contributed more than money to the United Nations in recent years. The country has made a systematic effort to fill the organization’s leadership posts with Communist Party officials. Chinese nationals now head more than a quarter of the UN Specialized Agencies, including the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Telecommunication Union, the International Civil Aviation Administration, and the Industrial Development Organization. And the Chinese government continues to recruit more and higher-quality civil servants to work at the UN.

In return for the money, expertise, and personnel it provides, Beijing seeks the UN’s endorsement for its foreign policy initiatives, most notably Belt and Road. As Xi Jinping’s marquee initiative, BRI has won accolades for helping provide needed infrastructure to developing countries, but it has also garnered substantial criticism for falling short of international standards of financial viability, environmental protection, and labor rights.

Beijing has used the UN to shore up the project’s legitimacy and international support. China has tried to make the BRI indistinguishable from the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which focuses on poverty mitigation and environmental sustainability. The BRI serves “the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations,” said Liu Zhenmin, formerly of China’s foreign ministry, and now UN under-secretary-general for economic and social affairs. Even UN Secretary-General António Guterres has touted the initiative’s benefits as the UN throws its full-throated support behind the BRI with little inquiry into its risks and limitations.

Reclaiming the Mantle

Despite China’s efforts, many UN member states remain skeptical about Beijing’s leadership in global affairs. A recent Pew Research poll found that only 19 percent of respondents preferred for China, rather than the United States, to lead the world. But a future shaped by the values and interests of the CCP is fast arriving, and the opportunity to forestall it is now.

Washington should stave off China’s efforts to dilute liberal values in the UN system, particularly around the protection of human rights. Together with like-minded nations, the United States should focus on preventing China from inserting seemingly innocuous, ideological terms into UN documents—for example, “win-win cooperation,” “community of a shared future for mankind,” and “the democratization of international relations.” Such terms deliberately degrade consensus around universal human rights, and U.S. officials should disseminate a publicly available reference list of them, explaining how they are used to narrowly advance Beijing’s interests at the expense of established norms and values.

At the same time, the United States should call for UN leadership—including the secretary-general—to speak out more forcefully against China’s most egregious human rights abuses. Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, has set an example by going on record to criticize the “deeply disturbing allegations of large-scale arbitrary detentions of Uighurs.”

A future shaped by the values and interests of the CCP is fast arriving, and the opportunity to forestall it is now.

In the longer term, to hold illiberal values at bay requires the United States to stay engaged in the United Nations. Unilaterally withdrawing from important bodies, such as UNESCO and the Human Rights Council, has served only to cede influence to China. Instead, the United States should use its sway to drive the direction of UN agencies—or, at the very least, avoid leaving voids for China to fill. After all, China is still a distant second to the United States as the largest financial contributor to the UN system overall.

The United States lags behind, however, in contributing personnel to the United Nations, and it should strive to fix this by addressing the barriers to entry for American candidates. Americans often lack foreign language proficiency or are deterred by convoluted hiring processes. The State Department could help clear a path by adopting programs for entry- and mid-level employees that incorporate rotations to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and by offering intensive language immersion courses for those entering these programs.

All major powers seek to promote their interests within international organizations. As President Trump told the UN General Assembly in 2017, “I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always, and should always, put your countries first.” But China’s pursuit of its core interests at the UN is perilous, because among those interests is the narrow political goal of shoring up power under a single authority: the CCP. If Beijing succeeds in retooling the UN to its purposes, China won’t become more like the rest of the world—the rest of the world will become more like China.

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  • KRISTINE LEE is an Associate Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
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