China is Taking Over the UN on US Watch

Angelo Wijaya
4 min readMay 12, 2020

On April 14, 2020, the United States announced that the country will withhold the funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) over the organization’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Source: The Economist.

There are at least three issues identified by Quartz as to why the United States made this decision. First, the United States feels that WHO is being too friendly to China — for example by praising China’s handling of the outbreak — despite the findings that China has initially covered up the outbreak in the early days. Second, WHO openly opposed United States’ travel restriction warning in response to the outbreak in its early days. Third, the United States — who is now paying about 22% of WHO’s budget that falls under the “mandatory contribution” category — feels that China is not paying its fair share. China is currently paying about 12% of the mandatory contribution and the United States feels it is disproportionate to China’s 1.4 billion population and USD 13.6 trillion GDP.

The United States was, until the announcement by President Donald Trump that the funding will be halted, the biggest contributor to WHO. China was not a match. However, when the United States announced that the country will halt the funding, China came with another announcement: they will increase the funding to the WHO. As Gilsinan (2020) writes in The Atlantic, the message is clear: You can’t count on the United States, but you can count on us.

The United States has had a rocky relationship with the United Nations (UN). In 2011, the United States decided to withhold its funding to UNESCO, UN’s body for educational, scientific, and cultural matters. This came after UNESCO granted the Palestinian territories a full membership. In 2017, the United States pulled out of the organization altogether.

In 2018, the United States pulled out of another organization, the UNHRC — a UN body on human rights issues. This move was taken in a protest to the body’s criticism towards Israel.

Moreover, the United States has pulled out of other international arrangements whereby it leaves a blank spot for China to step in. Among those are the Paris Agreement, Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA), and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Of which, the latest has given China an upper hand in shaping international trade in the Asia-Pacific region.


Four out of 15 UN specialized agencies are currently headed by Chinese nationals. Those four organizations are the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

“No other nation leads more than one,” said Melanie Hart, a senior fellow and the director of China policy at the Center for American Progress, in an interview, as written in The Atlantic.

Some argue that China will replace the current global order — the order that is set up by the United States after the World War II.

I would argue otherwise.

China will not replace the current global order. It will invest more on the current global order (i.e. through the UN) — be it financially or from human resource perspective, and will try to drive the direction of the UN according to what China wants.

This was exemplified by how China was investing in the campaign of a Chinese national, Meng Hongwei, to be the president of Interpol, the international police organization. It was feared that the country will use Meng’s position to pursue political dissidents through the issuance of Interpol red notices. The notice is equal to an international arrest warrant.

Especially China is now building the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While China is building its BRI, it cannot afford to ignore the already existing and established post-WWII global order.

China is using the current global order and to build on it, its BRI ambition. For example, China, with the cooperation with the aforementioned UNIDO that is headed by a Chinese national is hosting the “Bridge for Cities” events to discuss the role of BRI in developing green economies for cities.

An event poster of a “Bridge for Cities” event.

Another example is explained by an article publshed by The Diplomat.

Since 2007, the position of under-secretary-general for the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) has been held by Chinese career diplomats, giving the Chinese government opportunities to reshape the UN’s development programs in accordance to its interests.

UNDESA is now working with China to “jointly build Belt and Road towards SDGs” through its platform BRI-SDGs.

UNDESA’s BRI-SDGs initiative.

China is also working with UNEP, a UN body for the environment, on The Belt and Road Initiative International Green Development Coalition (BRIGC).

If the United States continues to take a step backward in nurturing the UN, China will keep trying to gain more influence in the organization.

If this is to happen, other countries like Indonesia needs to know how to adjust its seat, fasten its seatbelt, and navigate through this “new normal”.


Note: this link includes a list of UN Agencies Belt and Road Involvement.