Is China ready to play a bigger role at the United Nations? Western diplomats have long been both intrigued and frustrated by Beijing’s attitude towards the UN. The quality of its diplomats in New York has notably risen over the last decade, but they have often remained passive in the face of major crises, following Russia’s lead over conflicts such as Syria. As I noted last June, China is often an “absent power” in UN debates, perhaps because “Beijing simply doesn’t care enough about the UN enough” to invest more in it.
Yet over the last year, there has been an ostensible shift in China’s diplomatic posture. The catalyst for this was President Xi Jinping’s first visit to the UN General Assembly in September. Xi wowed his fellow leaders, and reportedly even surprised some of his own officials, with an impressive list of pledges, including promises of 8,000 personnel to reinforce peacekeeping missions and $1 billion for a new “peace and development” fund.
These attention-grabbing offers appear to fit in with a broader pattern of growing Chinese engagement in UN affairs. Beijing played a central role in securing last month’s Paris climate agreement, it has sent combat troops to serve under UN command in Mali and South Sudan, and is now the second biggest financial contributor to the organisation’s $8 billion annual peacekeeping budget (overtaking Japan, but still lagging behind the United States).
China has also quietly distanced itself from some of Russia’s hard line tactics in the Security Council and General Assembly, pointedly abstaining on a series of resolutions on the Ukrainian crisis that Russia has opposed. European diplomats note that their Chinese counterparts have become distinctly friendlier since Xi’s visit. The Iran deal may also have contributed to their good mood. For the last decade, it seemed possible, and at times probable, that a showdown over Tehran’s nuclear program could split the Security Council just as the Iraq War did in 2003. This would have put China, Iran’s most solid patron on the Security Council, in a tough spot – but the threat has now receded.
It is not all good news, howver. The EU has, for example, worked closely with Japan to push North Korean human rights abuses up the agenda at the UN, irritating the Chinese, while Beijing and Moscow blocked Security Council action over the mounting crisis in Burundi through much of 2015. Nonetheless, European officials typically welcome Beijing’s increased multilateral engagement, seeing it as evidence of the country’s maturation as a global power.
Some hope that China will realign its priorities at the UN, moving further away from Russia and collaborating more closely with the West on future crises. There are precedents for this: Beijing has increasingly looked for ways to work with the US and Europeans over Sudan and South Sudan, where it has hefty investments and influence.
Yet there are still reasons to be skeptical about China’s level of commitment to the UN. It is, at best, selective. President Xi’s offers of fresh funding last September may have sounded spectacular, but China still takes a miserly approach to many part of the UN system. It gave a little less than $1 million to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2014 (the last year for which an exact figure is available), which equates to 0.0003 percent of the refugee agency’s annual requirements. The European Commission alone gave $272 million in the same year. While the Chinese contribution to UNHCR rose by roughly $2 million in 2015, it is rounding error territory, and Beijing is not a big donor to the World Food Programme (WFP) or other UN aid agencies.
This is a particularly sensitive issue for European governments, which desperately need UNHCR, the WFP, and the rest of the humanitarian system to function effectively in order to help manage and reduce the refugee crisis facing the continent. Many EU members severely cut their own humanitarian budgets after the 2008 financial crisis (as successive editions of ECFR’s European Foreign Policy Scorecard have chronicled) and are regretting the decision. Short on funds to handle the Syrian crisis in particular, UN officials have not been able to offer refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey sufficient rations and shelter. This has contributed to the surge of refugees into the EU, and many European governments are now scrabbling to find additional money, cutting longer development programming.
I recently warned that “Senior UN officials privately worry that they are approaching ‘peak crisis’ […] a moment when they simply cannot run any additional large relief missions.” UN and European officials alike would be delighted if Beijing were to step in with the cash to fill the UN’s humanitarian funding gaps. They are likely to raise this theme repeatedly in 2016. There is a major humanitarian summit scheduled in Istanbul in May, and US President Barack Obama will convene fellow leaders to discuss the refugee crisis during the UN General Assembly in September. There will doubtless be many calls for Beijing to boost its aid pledges and to contribute a sum that is relative to its economic weight.
Chinese officials are unlikely to react sympathetically to such appeals. From Beijing’s perspective, Europe helped instigate the Mediterranean refugee disaster by contributing to the destabilisation of Libya and Syria. The prevailing view is that the EU should sort out its own mess. China has more to gain by strengthening bilateral ties with friendly African and Arab governments, than by sinking money into UN agencies that remain under Western control (the head of UNHCR is always a European, while the US owns the top job at the WFP). Speaking in Cairo last month, President Xi promised $300 million to help train the Egyptian police and billions of dollars of investments in the Arab world. These sorts of pledges are liable to buy much more leverage than UN financing.
This does not mean that China’s current forms of engagement in the UN are illusory, or that European officials should not encourage them. François Godemont has argued that China is looking for a “low-cost version of the international order – less ambitious but also less demanding than the outgoing international order.” Facing this reality it may be necessary to cooperate with Beijing on UN priorities that genuinely interest it (such as stabilising the Sudans) and accept that it will not do much on those that don’t (propping up aid agencies). China is not going revitalise the UN on Europe’s terms, but UN mechanisms still provide a useful framework for guiding cooperation where it is feasible.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.