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China’s influence at the UN is growing—how, why, and what it means with Rosemary Foot

Podcast & Video

Today’s Hub Dialogue is with Rosemary Foot who is a professor (emeritus) and currently a senior research fellow in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. Professor Foot has written extensively about China and its place in the world, including multiple books. Her most recent book is China, the UN and Human Protection: Beliefs, Power, Image

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

China’s interest in the UN

SEAN SPEER:  Well, thank you, Rosemary, we’re grateful to be able to speak to you today about your latest book on China’s involvement in the United Nations.

ROSEMARY FOOT: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks, Sean, for inviting me.

SEAN SPEER: Your book documents China’s growing efforts to influence the United Nations and its mission. What are we to make of the Chinese government’s interest in the UN? Is it merely a sign of its growing global leadership? Or does it reflect broader ideological and strategic motivations?

ROSEMARY FOOT: I think there’s a range of motivations. It’s in part to do with the UN being a really valuable platform for articulating one’s beliefs on particular issues, including both how we manage international conflict and how we deal with topics such as development. These issues are generally important and important to China in particular. 

It’s also a place where, partly because of institutional design, a state like China can protect its interests, and China obviously has growing overseas interests, particularly since the start of the 21st century. Many Chinese citizens reside abroad these days, and there are Chinese-owned businesses overseas and Chinese foreign investments. Many of the UN peace operations are located in Africa where China has an established presence. All of that means that China has interests to protect, and the UN can be a valuable adjunct in that task. 

Then in terms of institutional design, the UN is an interstate governance body, and China obviously puts a strong emphasis on the role of the state in world politics. It’s natural that the Chinese government would see a body rooted in nation-states and state power as a part of its international agenda. 

Lastly, it’s a place where you can network with others. So, for China, it’s not only a permanent member of the Security Council with all the privileges that go with that, but it is also part of a General Assembly, where China has growing influence. So, I think there is a range of reasons why China has begun to give more prominence to the United Nations as a feature of its external relations.

American withdrawal

SEAN SPEER: There’s something so interesting that China is, according to your research, adopting a more “activist foreign policy” and displaying a more globalist stance at the precise moment that the U.S. seems to be withdrawing. Is this merely a matter of correlation? Or is there some amount of causation at play as well?

ROSEMARY FOOT: Well, I think it can be opportunistic, and particularly so during the period of the Trump administration, where the U.S. withdrew from a number of UN-affiliated international organizations like the World Health Organization, the Human Rights Council, and so on. That’s an opportunity for China, in contrast to the U.S., to show or to present itself as a responsible global actor in world politics. But I think the ebb and flow of U.S. interests in the United Nations has to be taken into account as well. There’s no doubt that the Obama administration had a very different and more positive relationship with the United Nations compared with the Trump administration. I would say that the Biden administration also realizes the importance of the UN as one element of its international relations. 

Immediately after taking office, the Biden administration came back onto the Human Rights Council, came back into the World Health Organization, started paying its UN dues and the like, and generally sought to send a signal that while the United States may have its own interests that it will promote, it can also operate within an international multilateral forum like the United Nations. 

All this is to say, it’s definitely true that China’s ability to influence the UN was enhanced during the Trump period. But that’s not the whole story. I think China’s interests and its growing acceptance of the importance of the UN predates this period. I would argue that China’s attitude toward the United Nations began to change in the early 1990s and particularly so in the 2000s. 

China’s influence at the UN

SEAN SPEER: We’ve talked so far about China’s attitudes and its involvement in the United Nations. Let’s shift the conversation to how it conceives of the United Nations and its mission. The book argues that China’s conception of the United Nations is different from how leading democracies, including the United States, have tended to conceptualize the role of the UN. Do you mind elaborating on the subtle, yet fundamental difference in how China has come to think about the role of the UN and is effectively trying to influence the UN mission in this direction?

ROSEMARY FOOT: I think the important point here is the shift in the UN’s own perspective from the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the expansion in the definition of what actually presents a threat to international peace and security. That expanded definition included the notion that civil wars themselves were threats to international peace and security; that mass atrocities against individuals, not only raised international humanitarian law issues, but they themselves have spillover effects and can affect the management of international peace and security. In the post-Cold War era, you definitely saw the United Nations, in my view, and that’s what I argue in the book, moving into a post-Westphalian direction. In other words, it is of course an interstate governance body, but it began to think about the security of the individual as well as the security of states. 

I think it was summed up very well in Kofi Annan’s 1999 statement where he said something along the lines of, our contemporary reading of the UN Charter is not to protect those that abuse individuals, but actually to protect individuals that are under threat. That’s not a direct quote, but that’s basically what he was saying: that we do, in fact, have to protect rights beyond borders. He drew a direct link between the United Nations Charter and the obligation to protect individual sovereignty, to protect human rights. 

UN Secretaries-General emphasize much more these days the three-pillar structure of the United Nations. They describe it as a body that deals with international peace and security, development, and human rights—these are the three core elements. This implies that the goals of the United Nations can best be realized when those three elements are viewed as interdependent. Largely, democratic states have gone along with that formulation and what it implies; not always, of course, they have their own interests to protect at various times. But there has been a general acceptance among a body of states within the United Nations that we need to think about the security of the individual as well as the security of the state.

I would argue that China and other countries in the UN system, especially Russia, are saying “No, what we want actually is a recognition that state sovereignty provides the best protection for individuals: strong states, socially-stable states, states that emphasize economic development are better able to protect individuals from harm than any other mechanism.” Those are the two arguments that are in play at the moment with China emphasizing the need to focus on the state, for that state to prioritize social stability and economic development as the core approaches that one should adopt in order to bring about the outcomes associated with the UN Charter. 

That leads Beijing to downplay the role of human rights and the contribution of independent civil society and to emphasize the sovereign equality of states as the governing norm of international relations and non-interference in internal affairs as an important principle to maintain. I think in the past, in the 1990s, for example, you would have seen a slightly more flexible China on these issues. But as we moved into the 2000s, and particularly into the Xi Jinping era, Beijing has been much more confident in promoting its particular perspective on what type of body the United Nations should be. 

SEAN SPEER: Through what means is China seeking to influence the United Nations, including but not limited to financial resources, peacekeeping capacities, and so on? What are the means by which China is seeking to institutionalize this perspective that you just outlined in the UN, its agencies, and its overall activities?

ROSEMARY FOOT: It can do it in various different ways. It can do it for instance by helping to reshape UN Security Council resolutions to reflect its perspective. Those are more indirect methods and they are difficult to bring about because there’s so much precedent in the writing of UN resolutions. 

More directly, it’s worked hard to reshape the Human Rights Council, and I’d say it’s tried to do that both normatively and in terms of institutional design. So again, within the Human Rights Council, and directly since 2017, China has started to put forward its own resolutions within that council. Those resolutions reflect Chinese language about the “shared community of humankind”, but they also contain statements about development as a foundational right from which other rights can eventually flow. You get a discourse that emphasizes or downplays universality and indivisibility of human rights and emphasizes civilizational differences, cultural differences, countries finding their own road, no one system being more meritorious than another, and so on. Again, these resolutions point up ideas such as the sovereign equality of nations and non-interference in internal affairs as the bedrock of international order in the system. If there is to be human rights protection, it’s the individual state that will provide the guidelines for that protection, in Beijing’s view. So, that’s a very different perspective on human rights that China is articulating including through UN Human Rights Council resolutions. 

And then institutionally, it’s affecting the Human Rights Council when the Council engages, for example, in the Universal Periodic Review of a state’s human rights record. Every state in the system, about every four years, gets its human rights record reviewed in the Human Rights Council, and there will be instances of praise, and there will be instances of criticism, and suggestions for change, and the like. China has been working very much to try to turn that mechanism into one that doesn’t engage in what we used to call “naming and shaming”, but actually focuses on positive appraisals of particular states’ records, and emphasizes ways in which a state might improve its human rights record. So, that downplays the idea that there has to be some form of accountability for human rights transgressions. That’s essentially a softening of the Human Rights Council role. 

It’s also tried to restrict, in particular, the role of human rights NGOs within the Council. It has criticized the concept of a human rights defender, and so on. It also tried to cut the budget for a number of human rights posts, either within the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, or actually in peace operations themselves. It has a variety of moves that it makes, but all of them are geared towards, if you like, reshaping our understanding of how human rights can best be promoted in the world, and undermining the idea that universality is the bedrock underpinning of what we understand by human rights—an idea that is drawn from our common humanity. Instead, in Beijing’s view, countries have to find their own paths, and governments are given the lead in human rights promotion and protection. 

UN influence of China

SEAN SPEER: I have one final question for you. We’ve spent most of the conversation focused on how China’s engagement with the UN is having an effect on the United Nations itself. But is it a two-way street? Is there reason to think that China’s engagement with the UN is having any effects on Chinese policy and governance? 

ROSEMARY FOOT: Yes, I think I would agree that it is a two-way thing, and the best way of getting at that, in some respects, is by thinking about China in the Maoist era, or China in the early years of its involvement with the United Nations. As you know, Beijing doesn’t take up the China seat at the United Nations until 1971. In that Maoist period of the 1970s, essentially, it would depict the United Nations as simply a place where the superpowers exerted their hegemonic power in the system. I think it now has a far better understanding that weaker states in the system actually draw value from having this platform which enables them to put forward their particular perspectives on foreign policy issues. Beijing realizes that there are certain aspects of policy that can best be done multilaterally through a body like the United Nations. The leadership now accords the UN a more privileged role when the Security Council is debating ways of resolving or managing conflict through peace operations, whereas once upon a time, not so long ago in the 1980s, China didn’t pay its peacekeeping dues, it didn’t offer any troops, or participate in any peacekeeping operations. It didn’t think of peacekeeping as actually a valuable aspect of UN activity. 

That changed from the late 1980s and through to the 1990s, and then became quite a central part of Chinese foreign policy from the early 2000s. And that was partly because of its experience of operating alongside other countries, including developing countries, and perhaps especially developing countries, who saw in the UN a valuable addition to their protective needs, particularly through peace operations, but also through bodies like the UNDP and the WHO, and so on. There was also a growing understanding that there were aspects of the UN that gave China the potential to play a unique role in world politics, and that were worth preserving. 

So, I’m not trying to say that China just pursues its own interests. It also has a broader understanding of what those interests should be as a result of its participation in the UN. And it’s better, isn’t it, if China is a participant in these debates than if it’s an outsider just criticizing from the sidelines? It’s far more important for a country like China, although it may have different perspectives on a number of issues, that it actually has to argue for those perspectives in front of other Security Council members and at the General Assembly.

SEAN SPEER: Well, Professor, this has been a fascinating conversation. Of course, the book is China, the UN, and Human Protection: Beliefs, Power, Image. Congratulations on its publication and critical acclaim, and thanks for taking the time to speak with us today.

ROSEMARY FOOT: Thanks so much, Sean. A pleasure to do this. Thank you.