Countering Chinese influence in multinational organizations
In 1999, two colonels from the People’s Liberation Army wrote a military strategy manual titled “Unrestricted Warfare.” It outlined methods of beating technologically superior adversaries, such as the United States, by avoiding direct military confrontation. It called for investment in indirect means of warfare, especially international, economic, and information as the most effective means of asymmetrically challenging a United States preoccupied with kinetic military technology.
The book proved prescient and has served as a blueprint for what China has done in the 21st century. China’s rapid rise to being a near peer competitor with the U.S. has again demonstrated its naked hunger and geopolitical ambition frequently exercised through gaining leadership roles in multinational organizations (MNOs). China has sunk its tentacles into global capital markets, both through the private sector and through the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Indeed, many histories of China’s evolution to a global economic power begin in 2001 with its ascension to the WTO and revolve around its ability to exploit the organization’s openness in the two decades since.
That China is playing a more active role in existing MNOs is not a surprise given China’s dramatic increase in geopolitical and economic clout over the last two decades, and not in and of itself a strategic exigency. But China’s efforts frequently go beyond simply building influence within established structures and norms. Beijing has consistently sought to coopt these organizations with the aim of changing organizational values, norms, and practices to more closely reflect — and also advance — those of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Consider China joining committees such as the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) only to, in the long run, adjust the body’s own interpretation of human rights to align with that espoused by Beijing. This became evident in April, 2020 when China was appointed to the Consultative Group of UNHRC, which oversees candidate recommendations for UN human rights experts.
Coopting multinational organizations has become a powerful weapon in China’s arsenal designed to circumvent the current — though considerably diminished — U.S. comparative advantages of alliances and technological advances. In the past decade, China has become the financier of first resort at the World Bank, whereas the U.S. used to hold that position. China has also increased its roles in the Bank’s advisory non-lending activities: Four out of 15 heads of specialized agencies of the UN are headed by the Chinese. The COVID-19 pandemic only highlighted the pull China has had, much to the surprised chagrin of the world, in the World Health Organization (WHO). It also underscored risks associated with MNO’s indulging and then externalizing the coercive and controlling instincts of China’s authoritarian political system.
While some of the damages are irreversible, the competition for influence in and leadership of MNOs continues to be a crucial component of the broader U.S.-China strategic competition that is often sidelined in the age of confrontational America First diplomacy.
The United States needs to step into its former leadership roles in multinational organizations lest we risk relenting the space — and the geopolitical influence and economic and industrial advantage it confers — to China.
China’s growing influence in the International Technology Union and other organizations responsible for the setting of future technological standards reflects the scale of the problem, particularly when considered in conjunction with the China Standards 2035 initiative. Widespread adoption of China’s standards for the technologies likely to shape the future of telecom and nearly every major industry would create a difficult-to-overcome industrial advantage and deepen China’s geopolitical relationships, especially in the growing list of Belt and Road Initiative countries.
The Trump administration record to date is poor. It pulled the U.S. out of UNHCR and WHO and has decreased funding and personnel to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, where China holds the third largest voting power.
This is the opposite of what we need to do to combat Chinese influence. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s surprising August Wall Street Journal op-ed indicated a willingness to reform the WTO rather than simply leave the organization. This reversal is welcome, but it’s unclear if this is now administration policy. Nor is it clear to what degree the United States is committed, as it should be, to better prioritizing the amount of resources and the caliber of senior political appointees to the WTO and MNOs more broadly.
Within these MNOs, we have the flexibility to create new strategic alliances and even new multilateral alignments and organizations that center around a specific topic. Imagine if we had a bloc bisecting the World Bank and the WTO that worked collectively and collaboratively on a 5G solution that could compete against Huawei at technical level and offer a geopolitical alternative to the growing number of states concerned about employing Chinese technology into its most important networks. Discussion of a D10 group that shares a commitment to democracy and concern over China’s intensifying geopolitical and economic coercion, cyber espionage, intellectual property theft, and efforts to export techno-authoritarianism is a useful start, but should not be the only — or even most important — response.
For such efforts to be sustainable they must be in service of something more compelling than a “but China” narrative.
We are in the midst of an age of geopolitical uncertainty and transition, shifting away from American unipolarity to multipolarity: the dimensions, dynamics, and rules of a possible future equilibrium at the core of the U.S.-China competition.
The United States must couple reinvigoration of its leadership in existing MNOs with perhaps painful self-reflection and improvement and, ultimately, the development and communication of a vision of what comes next.
The Chinese government has known and built, since the 1990s, its arsenals in indirect warfare. The only way to combat Chinese authoritarian values is to construct resiliency of norms, outcomes, and more importantly, vision of what democratic societies stand for. But the reconstruction will only work with U.S. leadership at the helm to enhance opportunities for security, freedom, and shared prosperity in a new international system.
Tate Nurkin is a non-resident senior fellow with Forward Defense within the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He is also the founder of OTH Intelligence Group LLC, a senior associate with Janes, and a partner with One Defense, a defense technology strategic advisory and horizon scanning firm. He is the lead author of the Atlantic Council’s strategy white paper “A Candle in the Dark: A US AI Strategy for National Security,” which was published in December 2019. He is also the lead author of an Atlantic Council paper on Japan-U.S. defense collaboration in artificial intelligence and unmanned systems.
Evanna Hu is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Additionally, she is the CEO and partner of Omelas, an artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning company working on mapping the online information environment. She is a subject matter expert in messaging and propaganda of countering violent extremism (CVE) and counterterrorism (CT) in both Salafi-jihadism and neo-Nazism and has worked at the intersection of governance, security, and technology in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, including extensive time in Kenya, Iraq, the Gaza Strip, Syria, Tunisia, and Afghanistan. Prior to Omelas, she successfully founded two technology ventures, one based in Nairobi, Kenya, and another in Amman, Jordan. To date, she has briefed six national heads of intelligence and has advised 12 cabinet or ministerial members on technology and security. At the Atlantic Council, she specializes in emerging technologies for NATO and member countries with a focus on AI and 5G.