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China’s Long March through the international institutions – and how the UK should respond

As the UK’s relationship with China undergoes a period of change – on issues covering the WHO’s response to the pandemic, Hong Kong, Huawei and human rights abuses – some re-evaluation of China’s relationship with international institutions now seems inevitable.

This report by Radomir Tylecote and Robert Clark suggests that there are two ‘fronts’ to China’s strategy in the international institutions:

• first, influencing and potentially co-opting existing organisations such as UN bodies;

• second, creating rival Chinese-dominated international institutions to propagate alternative, authoritarian political norms.

The authors’ analysis of China’s actions in the World Health Organisation (WHO) and in other core UN agencies demonstrates how Beijing is utilising this influence to promote a wide strategic agenda. The report describes:

WHO: “The WHO in particular demonstrates how this influence allows China increasingly to influence leadership elections, as shown in the election of current Director-General Dr Tedros Adhenom Ghebreyesus, a man who has described Xi Jinping as a ‘visionary’.”

Tech standards organisations: China is also pursuing its own strategy for international technology standards, which Beijing increasingly sees as ‘strategic weapons’. This includes standards for facial recognition technologies and facilitating increased state control of the internet, which it aims to propagate through Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure.

The authors also note growing concerns about China’s influence in the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO). The US State Department claims China secretly carried out underground nuclear tests in 2019, whereas the CTBTO describes China as a ‘global leader [in] nonproliferation’.

Potential rival institutions: Through the BRI, China is developing its own group of organisations including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a potential rival to the World Bank, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a counter to NATO.

The authors suggest a mix of policy responses including:

International institutions
• “The immediate priority is for the UK to build a more detailed picture of China’s activities within these institutions, including its apparent nurturing of individuals, and of rules violations.”
• “The UK should therefore not only demand the expulsion of individual diplomats for violations, but should, as a strategic priority, act in concert with the US and willing Commonwealth partners in a ‘strategic planning group’ to form common positions such as responses to violations, and to push for the reform of international institutions – for example in election rules and transparency, and penalties for bribery.”

Chinese-originated institutions
• The UK and its allies need to build a clearer picture of the mechanics and aims of Chinese-originated institutions. It is already apparent that UK membership – and funding – of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is unwise.
• The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): the UK should [work] in a much more coordinated fashion with allies in the provision of infrastructural aid and spending especially, to create scale that can compete with Chinese offers to developing countries.
• The UK should ensure the creation of a proposed ‘D10’ (the G7 countries plus India, South Korea and Australia), a democratic bloc that can develop competing digital infrastructure and make global technology standards more robust.
Domestic responses
• “Domestically, an assessment should be made of those companies that are active in pursuing a technological agenda that diverges from the UK’s…”
• “The UK government should investigate a full suite of restrictions, and in some cases sanctions, against certain companies, systematically outlining the rationale for an ongoing system of responses.”
• “The UK’s response should also use the upcoming integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy to more fully reassess domestic dependency on Beijing in certain sectors, including on Chinese imports, FDI, and intellectual property acquisition.”
The report sets out a range of policy shifts that will be needed, the authors argue, “if international institutional structures are to become more robust to the authoritarian governance practices which the Chinese government seeks to export into the existing global order.”

A Long March through the Institutions

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