“This isn’t about being fair,” he added. “This is about winning.”
Read: How China deceived the WHO
The WHO isn’t the only example. Last year, the United States gave more than $670 million to the United Nations’ operating budget, while China gave almost $370 million—yet Chinese nationals currently head four of the body’s 15 specialized agencies. “No other nation leads more than one,” Melanie Hart, a senior fellow and the director of China policy at the Center for American Progress, told me. “Making contributions is one thing, but [Chinese personnel] show up big, and they push.”
China’s muscle-flexing is also occurring at a time in which the U.S. president has expressed disinterest in, or outright contempt for, international organizations, canceling or suspending funding for some, and calling it into question for others. The most powerful country in the world is perhaps entitled to take this posture—after all, U.S. presidents have ignored or sidestepped international organizations for decades, not least in launching bombing campaigns over Kosovo in the 1990s and Iraq in the 2000s. But China clearly sees such organizations not as irrelevant hindrances but as convenient vehicles for expanding its global influence. The Trump administration, meanwhile—though the U.S. appointed a special envoy to counter “malign influences” of China and others at the UN toward the beginning of the year, and finally announced a nomination for America’s years-vacant seat on the WHO’s executive board—has largely ceded the field.
Besides Beijing’s splashy but meager contribution to the WHO, in the past week China sent a representative to an EU-led pledging conference to find a vaccine. The United States declined to participate. In a phone call with reporters, a senior administration official repeatedly sidestepped questions about why, and insisted that “our cooperation with European partners continues to be extremely robust.”
The pattern repeats itself all over the planet. The U.S. still gives billions in foreign aid every year, and the funding touches all facets of life in other countries including public health, military training, sanitation, and women’s rights. But China is a shiny relative newcomer in many developing countries that have come to take U.S. assistance for granted. In the past 15 years China has been plowing money into megaprojects like airports and dams—strategic and flashy investments, unavoidable monuments to China’s ambitions and staying power. And the funding doesn’t tend to come with the same kinds of pro-transparency and human-rights-protection strings attached to American aid, which makes it more attractive to corrupt or authoritarian governments. So even if China doesn’t give more, it advertises better.
H. R. McMaster: How China sees the world
Chinese leaders also present their own country as a voice for the developing world against the dominant Western global powers. “They were the big players” in trying to get the World Health Organization to focus on developing countries’ issues, David Hohman, who formerly served as Deputy Director of the Office of Global Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, told me. “Fortunately in WHO you don’t vote on things, but if you ever did, [China has] the votes … It was a big advantage to them.”