To Counter China, US should Invest in International Organizations

Key takeaways

  • China’s involvement in the international area has exerted a corrosive effect on international organizations and norms
  • Engagement with China often gives a “mixed bag” of results, providing tangible and vital benefits which are offset by incomplete cooperation and divergent political interests
  • The US should redouble involvement in international organizations to counteract Chinese influence and strengthen domestic capabilities to safeguard national interests against Chinese intransigence


In the last couple months, two aspects of China’s role in the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic have attracted public anger. US intelligence has concluded that China has covered up the extent of the pandemic within its borders, information which could have heightened global public awareness of the seriousness of the outbreak during January and led to quicker global responses. The WHO has also been accused of pro-China bias for appearing to advance Beijing’s narrative and for shutting Taiwan out of discussion on the pandemic. These scandals highlight two running themes of China’s engagement with the world which the US must address to safeguard its national security: the corrosive effect of Chinese involvement in international organizations, and the mixed results that often come from engagement with China.

Corrosive effect of Chinese involvement in the international sphere

The WHO supporting China’s narrative of the COVID-19 crisis fits a pattern of Chinese influence undermining the legitimacy and effectiveness of international organizations. Critics point to how the WHO initially backed China’s claims in mid-January that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus, despite not being given access to the country until after January 28. The WHO’s chief was also criticized for declaring on February 3 that travel restrictions were unnecessary after several countries enacted bans on foreign travelers from China, a statement which China cited during the following days as it strongly condemned the travel restrictions. 

The WHO has also been accused of advancing China’s priorities at the expense of global health. Taiwan has been denied observer status at the WHO for years at the behest of China, and Taiwan has accused the WHO of ignoring its requests for information during the COVID-19 crisis as well. Last year the WHO also endorsed traditional Chinese medicine after lobbying from China, despite concern by mainstream scientists that most of its remedies have not been proven to be effective and have not been systematically tested for toxicity.

Although engagement with China has been vital for the WHO to receive and disseminate information on the COVID-19’s epidemiology, it has come at the cost of damaging the WHO’s legitimacy and materially inhibiting Taiwan’s ability to respond to pandemics. This fits a pattern of Chinese participation in the international area exerting a corrosive effect on international organizations and norms.

Another international organization which has suffered from China’s involvement is the WTO, where China’s trade practices have contributed in large part to the organization’s breakdown. While China has largely adhered to the letter of WTO regulations and complied with dispute settlement rulings, it has found workarounds that are not technically against WTO rules but violate the spirit of the commitments it made on accession. A 2018 USTR report outlines how China has continued to use market access restrictions, asset purchases, and theft to force technology transfers among many other violations (full report here).

This behavior has contributed to US frustration with the WTO and calls for reform, but the WTO’s principle of unanimous agreement for changes grants China powerful leverage to block reform. The US has been forced to turn to domestic trade remedies and bilateral sanctions as a result, severely undermining the WTO’s mission even before the US effectively froze the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism by blocking judicial appointments to its Appellate Body.

China’s international involvement has also eroded international norms, with its Belt and Road Initiative being feared to be undermining transparency and stoking corruption. China was found to be funneling money into Malaysia’s troubled 1MDB fund to replace funds embezzled by the government in exchange for Chinese firms receiving stakes in infrastructure projects. Most recipient countries of BRI projects also already ranked among the bottom half of the world for risk of bribery. China has also been reluctant to apply its oversight laws overseas, exempting overseas investment and foreign aid projects from disclosure requirements and not enforcing a law against bribing foreign officials.

Mixed bag of results from engagement with China

China’s response to COVID-19 is a reminder of China’s frequent ambivalence as a partner, and how engagement can provide tangible benefits but is tempered by divergent interests and governmental capacity. China’s provision in mid-January of COVID-19’s genetic sequence and information on epidemiology was vital for the international community to prepare countermeasures, but the systematic undercounting of official pandemic data painted a distorted picture which potentially hampered speedier and tougher international responses.

US intelligence found that local officials in Wuhan “vastly understated” infection rates, testing counts, and death counts, concealing the true numbers even from central authorities out of fear of punishment. Lying and contravention of stated central government aims is a systematic feature of China’s political system, as local officials are assigned contradictory targets to which promotions are tightly tied and whistleblowers are harassed and imprisoned. This has hampered even genuine central government efforts to achieve objectives such as reining in air pollution and tainted food scandals, much less cooperation with the international community on issues like pandemic response where the central government is strongly incentivized to understate case numbers.

Contradictory interests have produced mixed results in other areas of engagement as well. Despite sharing a genuine interest in denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and cooperating to a degree on upholding sanctions on North Korea, China’s overriding fears of regional instability, refugee flows, and the emergence of a US-aligned state along its border have led it to violate sanctions to stabilize the regime. As a result, North Korea has been able to press on with its nuclear program secure in the knowledge that China dare not let sanctions drive it to the actual point of collapse.In trade, US exporters and consumers have benefited from exports of goods and services worth $178 billion and imports worth $559 billion in 2018. Trade with China was also estimated by Oxford Economics in 2017 to support 2.6 million US jobs, though several estimates of net job losses caused by trade with China have put the number between 2.0 million and 3.2 million over a 12-year period from approximately 2000 to 2012. Although trade with China has thus benefited US exporters and consumers to a fair amount, they suffer from Chinese industrial policy aimed at forcing technology transfer, protecting Chinese firms, and maintaining control over strategic industries and resources.

Recommendations: Invest in international organizations and domestic capabilities

Although the Trump administration has been skeptical of the utility of multilateral organizations and has diminished US involvement in many of them, they can provide real utility on issues ranging from coordination on pandemic response and climate change to dispute settlement for unfair trade practices. Surrendering these organizations to Chinese influence is also worse than simply not being involved, as this grants China the opportunity to bend these organizations to its benefit, expand political influence, and pull US allies away. The strain on US alliances caused by China’s growing influence can already be seen by Italy’s joining the BRI, the accession of Australia and most of Europe to the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the imminent adoption of Huawei’s 5G technology by the UK and Germany despite US concerns and objections. 

The Trump administration should reverse its skepticism of international organizations and take measures to counter China’s growing influence in them. US funding for the WHO and other international agencies should be expanded, and accountability demanded when pro-China biases arises. The US should leverage the WTO Appellate Body deadlock it has instigated to push for WTO reform to block unfair trade practices by China. The US should also pursue international trade agreements such as TPP and provide more infrastructure investment to developing countries to lock in trade norms, provide a transparent alternative to opaque Chinese-led investment, and draw countries closer to the US

The US should also strengthen domestic capabilities to safeguard against the limitations and damages of engagement with China. Intelligence providing vital information on China should be supported and expanded. Strategic reserves of vital supplies like surgical masks should be topped up. Firms supplying vital manufactured goods and raw materials should be incentivized to diversify supply chains to domestic sources and to countries like Mexico, Thailand, and India to safeguard against supply disruption caused by crises involving China. The US should also continue to maintain its military deterrent against North Korea, as North Korea’s nuclear status is a fait accompli and unlikely to be remedied through Chinese intervention.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call to the risks of China’s engagement with the world. The US should seize this opportunity to safeguard its interests.

(Image: Director general of WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Chinese Chairman Xi Jing Ping; Source: Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’s twitter)

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Robert H. Anderson

Robert graduated from the UC San Diego School of Policy and Strategy’s BA/MIA program in 2016, where he studied international affairs and specialized in economics and China. He worked in data analysis and market research at Qualcomm for over two years, dealing primarily with Chinese licensees. He is currently pursuing a Master of China Studies at Zhejiang University. Robert is fluent in Mandarin Chinese.

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