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China builds influence at U.N. as U.S. cuts back

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Two of U.S. President Donald Trump's least favorite things in the wider world these days are the United Nations, which he sees as an expensive nuisance, and China, which he views as a major rival. But in neglecting one, he might be helping the other.

The backdrop: The Trump administration said it will cut back on U.S. funding for the U.N., in part because Trump — like many conservatives in Washington — sees it as an inefficient, and in some ways illegitimate, encroachment on America's ability to do what it wants in the world.

China sees things differently:

  • The Chinese leadership views the U.N. as an important vehicle for expanding its global economic and strategic role, particularly in the developing countries that depend most on the U.N.'s services.
  • That's why Beijing is now the second largest contributor to the U.N. budget, accounting for 12% of the organization's funding, up from just 1% 20 years ago.
  • China is also the number 2 financial supporter of peacekeeping operations, and when it comes to sending actual personnel, Beijing's 2,500 peacekeepers are more than the other 4 permanent members of the Security Council combined (that's the U.S., France, the U.K., and Russia.)
  • For perspective, in 1990, China offered up just 5 troops.

China has also succeeded in getting its officials elected or appointed to a number of important U.N. positions overseeing global economic, technology, and climate issues.

It's not as though the U.S., which is still the largest single contributor to U.N. budgets, isn't aware of this.

  • U.S. officials have been trying to push back against Chinese moves at the U.N.
  • But they've confined themselves mainly to opposing specific Chinese appointments (with limited success) or scrubbing Chinese-coined terms from U.N. documents. In other words, it's a tactical pushback against China's strategic bet on the U.N.

Whether the expansion of China's role within the U.N. is a good thing or a bad thing depends on your point of view.

  • If, like the current U.S. administration, you see China as a "strategic competitor," then ceding so much influence at the U.N., whatever the organization's shortcomings, might not be smart. After all, debates about "America First vs. Globalism" are not all that interesting to developing countries where China is keeping the peace and building things.
  • On the other hand, if you think that a country that is poised, as Xi Jinping says, to "take center stage in the world" ought to take a bigger stake and more responsibilities in a cornerstone international institution, then China's larger role at the U.N. looks like an important step in its maturation as a global power.

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