How the People’s Republic of China Leverages Its Membership in Multilateral Organizations to Advance Its Geopolitical Interests

PeopleDiplomats ♦ Published: May 17, 2022; 17:34 ♦ (Vindobona)

Without question, China has become a global superpower and is successfully expanding its influence around the world. While there are many factors that have contributed to this success, China’s utilization of multilateral organizations to shape the international system to its liking cannot be discounted. Read how China has leveraged its membership in multilateral organizations to advance its own geopolitical interests.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (left). / Picture: © UN United Nations

Since the United Nations officially recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1971, China has used its membership in the various multilateral organizations to elevate its role in global governance and advance its own geopolitical interests. In addition to the United Nations, China is a member of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, UNIDO, and numerous other multilateral organizations.

For years, China seemed willing to adhere to the international norms and rules established by these international institutions after WWII. Many in the United States and other Western democracies were convinced that the more China was integrated into the international system and the global economy, the more liberal the Chinese government would become. However, as China’s military and economic strength increased, especially in the 21st century, China began to test these norms and challenge the post-WWII institutions.

China has increased its influence in the existing institutions, putting more Chinese officials into leadership positions that increase China’s ability to shape the international order. While China has used this influence in the existing institutions to promote a more authoritarian worldview, it has also created its own multilateral organizations that serve the same purpose as some of those already in existence in an attempt to further undermine the existing global order.

Although every country naturally uses international institutions to advance its own interests on the global stage, China seems to believe that it is in its best interest to use the institutions to restructure or replace the current international system. Though this can be seen in many different decisions made by the Chinese government, below are a few clear examples of China’s effort to do so.

UN vote on Russia’s war against Ukraine

One very recent example of China using its membership in the multilateral organizations to challenge the current rules-based international system is China’s abstention from the vote at the UN General Assembly blaming Russia for the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and calling for a ceasefire. Despite Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and numerous reports of war crimes by the Russian military, China refused to vote for a measure blaming Russia and calling for the protection of millions of civilians along with their homes, schools and hospitals.

The measure, which was met with loud applause upon passage, received 140 favorable votes, with only Russia, Belarus, Syria, North Korea and Eritrea opposing it and 38 nations, including China, abstaining. The South China Morning Post reported that, following its passage, quite a few Ambassadors to the UN said, that a strong majority of UN member states made clear that Russia bears sole responsibility for the grave humanitarian crisis and violence in Ukraine. They called the vote “an astounding success.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a blatant violation of international law, and the numerous potential war crimes committed by Russia during the invasion are a further flouting of the rules-based international system. China’s abstention from this vote and criticism of Western sanctions on Russia for the invasion suggests that China is not particularly committed to the current international rules and norms. Many experts have proposed that China has been unwilling to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because President Xi Jinping has his own plans to similarly invade Taiwan at some point in the future. While speaking about Taiwan in October 2021, President Xi remarked, “The historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled, and will definitely be fulfilled.” Moreover, according to the Taipei Times, while China’s calculations regarding an invasion of Taiwan may be affected by the economic and military costs Russia is facing for invading Ukraine, this will not affect President Xi’s long-term goal of reunification.

Naturally, if China plans to violate international law and carry out its own invasion of another nation, then it is currently in its best interest to not criticize Russia for doing so and instead blame those trying to punish the country that is breaking the rules. In other words, it seems that China would like to help normalize a blatant violation of international law so that if it does the same in the future, other countries will be less willing to hold it accountable.

Group of Friends of Global Development Initiative (GDI)

Another example of China using multilateral organizations to advance its geopolitical interests is President Xi’s Global Development Initiative (GDI) and the so-called Group of Friends of the GDI, which was launched at the United Nations earlier this year. The GDI has the support of over 100 countries and international organizations. According to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the GDI “calls on the international community to pay more attention to development, strengthen international development cooperation and accelerate the implementation of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

Like the foreign minister, Permanent Representative of China to the United Nations Vienna Wang Qun claims that the GDI will simply speed up the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and that it is “committed to a people-centered approach, in meeting people’s aspirations for a better life through collective efforts of the international community, and outline priority areas of cooperation, especially as they pertain to climate change, green development, industrialization as well as poverty reduction.”

While the GDI may sound like a positive initiative to help other nations meet the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) quicker, China’s other major international development program, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has been accused of using predatory lending to force countries to adopt China-friendly policies–a practice that has become known as debt-trap diplomacy.

Therefore, some argue that Chinese development initiatives like the BRI and GDI are simply efforts to make the world more reliant on China than the US or Europe and should be met with a certain level of skepticism.

China and UNIDO

China’s ability to leverage its membership in multilateral organizations to advance its global interests can also be seen in its role at the Vienna-based United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). As mentioned above, over time, China has worked to place its own officials into leadership roles at various international organizations. One prominent example of this was when China was able to get Li Yong elected as Director General of UNIDO. CCP party member Li Yong then served as Director General from 2013 until December 2021.

Unsurprisingly, China used this time to increase its “cooperation” with UNIDO. In 2017, Li Yong used his position at UNIDO to provide an endorsement of China’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative, saying, “At UNIDO, we strongly believe that the Belt and Road Initiative stands to become one of the largest and most effective platforms for international cooperation of the century.” On behalf of UNIDO, Li Yong then signed multiple cooperation agreements with the Chinese government in support of the BRI. As stated above, the Chinese government has been accused of using the BRI to offer predatory loans and increase other countries’ dependence on China. As one of the prominent international organizations, UNIDO’s support of the BRI likely helped provide it with more credibility on the world stage.

Four years after Li Yong was able to get UNIDO’s support for the BRI, he once again increased cooperation with China by offering UNIDO’s support for President Xi’s Global Development Initiative. More specifically, Li Yong and UNIDO signed a memorandum of understanding about increased cooperation between UNIDO and the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA). Regarding the agreement, Director General Li said, “UNIDO will work with CIDCA to help developing countries meet their development challenges, and work with China and other Member States to deepen international development cooperation for inclusive and sustainable industrial development and the common prosperity of the world.”

Given that UNIDO has continued to support the GDI even after Li Yong was succeeded by Director General Gerd Müller of Germany, China was clearly successful in using Mr. Li’s leadership role to shape the organization’s policy agenda to be more in line with China’s geopolitical interests.

China’s growing influence

Without question, China has become a global superpower and is successfully expanding its influence around the world.

While there are many factors that have contributed to this success, China’s utilization of multilateral organizations to shape the international system to its liking cannot be ignored.

Whether it is refusing to condemn blatant violations of international law; creating parallel institutions like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO); or having Chinese officials adopt China-friendly policies at international organizations, China seems to be working to undermine the liberal-democratic world order.

This rivalry between China’s more authoritarian worldview and the Western-backed democratic worldview is far from settled and will likely intensify in the coming years as China’s global influence continues to grow.

It therefore seems that the time has come for not only Western democratic countries, but especially those countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America that have already become financially or economically dependent on the People's Republic of China, to break free from this grip by taking stronger political positions against the authoritarian one-party state.

United Nations

United Nations Industrial Development Organization UNIDO

Chinese Foreign Ministry

Chinese National Development and Reform Commission

Permanent Mission of China to the United Nations Vienna

South China Morning Post

Taipei Times