WE READ IN dispatches from the United States that Beijing is using the coronavirus outbreak, Covid-19, as an opportunity to expand its desired alternative system of international governance by floating the idea of a Chinese-led rival to the World Health Organization to lead the global coordination of the fight against Covid-19.
Axios, a Washington-based portfolio of newsletters, says the soundings are being taken by China National Petroleum Corp.’s Economics & Technology Research Institute, a pivotal player in the formation of national oil and gas policies, if not, hitherto, in international health.
The report provides, in truth, a thin reed from which to build such a proposition. However, for this Bystander, it is another straw in an emerging narrative of would-be Chinese global leadership, as is the foreign ministry spokesman’s statement that it is still undetermined in which country Covid-19 originated and that China had acted to protect the health and safety of the rest of the world.
It also comes on the heels of a hard-fought battle to appoint the new director general of the World Intellectual Property Organization, a UN agency. Washington lobbied hard for the eventual appointee, Daren Tang, who heads the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore, over Wang Binying, a former Chinese government official who is currently a deputy director and 28-year veteran of the organisation.
Had she been successful, Chinese nationals would have headed five of the UNs’ 15 specialised standards-setting agencies, including the International Telecommunication Union and the Food and Agriculture Organization. No other permanent member of the Security Council (France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) heads more than one.
In January, the Trump administration appointed its former special envoy to North Korea, Mark Lambert, as a special envoy to counter China’s influence at the UN. Its China hawks have become concerned by China’s success at the UN in securing top positions within its agencies and at rallying members behind foreign-policy initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative and efforts led by Russia and backed by Beijing to establish a new cybersecurity treaty.
The combination of the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ retreat from multilateralism and its support for weak and politicised candidate for top UN jobs has created a vacuum that Beijing has readily sought to occupy both directly by filling positions of influence in the existing multilateral agencies and indirectly by starting to lay out a Chinese-led international order to supplant the US-led one that has prevailed since 1945.