3 April 2019
The U.S. national security advisor, who has largely ignored the United Nations, is suddenly concerned that Beijing has too much influence there.
Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the U.N. General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 28, 2015. (John Moore/Getty Images)
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.
JohnBolton’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.