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After Covid-19

Volume 2
Australia, the region and multilateralism

Edited by Michael Shoebridge
and Lisa Sharland
September 2020
Multilateralism, Australia and the world
China, the United States and the future of the UN system
Richard Gowan

Covid-19 has highlighted and exacerbated tensions between China and the US in the UN system. The
two powers were at loggerheads in multilateral forums before the virus emerged, as Beijing pushed for
more influence and positions of power in UN bodies while Washington tried simultaneously to abandon
its traditional leadership role and to prevent China from assuming that role. As the pandemic hit the US,
President Trump latched onto allegations that the World Health Organization (a UN specialised agency)
had covered up the disease’s origins in Wuhan, eventually announcing in late May that the US would cut
ties to the WHO. China reciprocated by suggesting that the US Army might have introduced the virus
to Wuhan. This dispute, which spilled over into arguments between Chinese and US diplomats at the
Security Council, is a symptom of a longer term decline in the powers’ willingness to work together
through the UN system, damaging the organisation as a whole.

While some diplomats and journalists have speculated about a ‘new Cold War’ at the UN, that’s
premature. Despite Sino-American tensions, we have yet to see a return to the superpower stand-offs
and bloc politics that suffocated elements of the UN from the 1940s to the 1980s. The Security Council,
which could go for a month or more at a time without meeting during the Cold War, has kept up a
busy schedule of virtual sessions during the pandemic. A coalition of states, including Australia and
the European Union, was able to pass a resolution at May’s World Health Assembly (WHA), the WHO’s
governing body, calling for an ‘impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation’ of the response to
Covid-19, despite continued sniping between the Chinese and US delegations.

Nonetheless, it seems probable that Sino-American tensions will increase further across the UN
system. This will have troubling side-effects for other states. When Australia proposed an international
investigation of Covid-19 prior to the WHA, Chinese diplomats and official media accused Canberra of
working on Washington’s behalf, and Beijing took economic measures against the Australian barley and
meat sectors that analysts saw as acts of retribution.

Middle powers such as Australia and the EU’s members now face a dilemma. There’s an obvious case for
collective international action in the era of Covid-19, not only on health issues but also to manage the
economic and political fallout from the pandemic. Yet China and the US are liable to undermine or block
such cooperation as they compete for power in the international system. If Joe Biden replaces Donald
Trump in the White House in 2021, the US is likely to become much more favourable to multilateralism, but
Beijing and Washington will still see each other as rivals in global forums. Can other states build coalitions
to bolster international coordination on policies to help the world recover from Covid-19, even as China
and the US treat international institutions as one of their many spheres of competition?

The makings of a multilateral crisis

Although the precise factors that led to tensions over Covid-19 couldn’t have been predicted before 2020,
the deterioration of China’s relations with the US at the UN was already obvious. That decline is of fairly
recent vintage. The Obama administration worked with Beijing on the Paris climate change agreement

After Covid-19 Volume 2: Australia, the region and multilateralism 75

and steps to strengthen UN peacekeeping, and both the Obama and the Trump administrations
successfully negotiated UN sanctions on North Korea at the Security Council. The US and its allies have
generally tried to avoid escalating confrontations with China in the Security Council on issues such as
Myanmar, in contrast to regular public battles with Russia.

Tensions between the two great powers have grown, however, as China has become more powerful in the
UN system and the US’s role and influence have declined. During his first years in office, President Trump
unintentionally gave China room to increase its multilateral influence by pulling out of arrangements,
including the Paris climate deal, and forums such as UNESCO and the Human Rights Council. China has
frequently become more active in those areas of UN business the US has quit. The US belatedly began
to mobilise against this trend in 2018, when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cast China as one of a
number of ‘bad actors’ (alongside Russia and Iran) in the international system in a speech in Brussels.
Since then, the two powers have tussled both over symbolic issues such as Chinese attempts to secure
UN rhetorical support for its Belt and Road Initiative and more concrete items, including Beijing’s efforts
to gain control of top UN posts. Chinese nationals now lead four of the 15 UN specialised agencies. By
contrast, an American leads only one, the World Bank, although US candidates continue to fill far more
senior jobs in the UN secretariat and field operations.

While US allies lament the Trump administration’s broader disregard for multilateralism, they share its
concerns about Beijing’s rising influence in the UN. EU officials, for example, argue that it’s essential
to work with China on climate change issues, but worry that Beijing is gaining ground in organisations
such as the Human Rights Council in the absence of the US and will weaken liberal norms. Non-Western
diplomats also complain that, as China gains influence, it’s growing less sensitive to their own concerns,
taking their support for granted.

China’s internal affairs have also become a point of contention at the UN, as the US and other Western
powers have raised concerns in the Security Council, Human Rights Council and General Assembly about
Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs. China has responded furiously to this challenge, pressing non-Western
states to sign letters praising its policies in Xinjiang.

In early 2020, the US moved to push back harder against China across the UN, appointing a new envoy
for ‘multilateral integrity’ to coordinate with allies over elections to international positions. In March, the
US and its allies blocked a Chinese candidate from leading the World Intellectual Property Organization
in Geneva. Even without the eruption of Covid-19, the two powers were on course for further friction in
the UN. ‘Without some sort of course correction,’ Anthony Dworkin and I argued in September 2019, ‘a
new bipolarity in multilateral forums, with the potential to halt or weaken their work, is likely to emerge’
(Gowan & Dworkin 2019: 5).

The impact of Covid-19

The Covid-19 crisis seems almost to have been designed to make Sino-American frictions worse. Reports
that WHO officials appeared to defer to Chinese officials over information sharing and travel restrictions
early in the outbreak fuelled US suspicions that Beijing has gained an unhealthy degree of influence over
UN agencies. Facing criticism for his own handling of the virus, President Trump seized on that narrative,
accusing the WHO of having ‘pushed Chinese misinformation about the virus’ and suspending its funding
in April.

That manoeuvre backfired badly. US allies criticised the move, and Chinese President Xi Jinping offered
$2 billion in funding to fight Covid-19 (equivalent to more than 8 times the annual US contribution to
the WHO) at the WHA in mid-May. In late May, the US President, having lost the political initiative to
Beijing—and having briefly made some rather vague demands for WHO reform—announced that he would
terminate US relations with the WHO.

The argument over the WHO bled into debates at the UN Security Council, which spent much of April and
early May trying to negotiate a resolution on the security implications of Covid-19. The substantive focus
of this resolution was a call for a global ceasefire during the pandemic (a goal that all council members
broadly agreed to, with caveats), but talks foundered on whether to include some largely symbolic
references to the WHO. While the US refused such language, the Chinese threatened to block any text that
didn’t contain at least an oblique mention of the organisation. The two powers seemed close to a tortuous
compromise in early May—with China accepting a reference to UN ‘entities’ working on global health
rather than a direct reference to the WHO—but Washington refused even that.

Once again, the US position backfired, as China cast the US as the main spoiler in this process, in contrast
to its own willingness to compromise. While the Chinese rejected a last-minute proposal from other
Security Council members for a resolution endorsing the global ceasefire idea without any WHO-related
language—demonstrating the limits of their own flexibility—most diplomats placed the blame for this
debacle with the US. While France and Tunisia, the sponsors of the resolution, eventually engineered a
compromise text on 1 July, that came too late to give the global ceasefire idea any real momentum, and
felt tokenistic.

Sino-American relations at the UN deteriorated further in the last week of May, when the US and UK called
for a council discussion of Beijing’s new security law for Hong Kong. Although the Chinese blocked a public
discussion, they couldn’t prevent a closed meeting on the issue, which became heated as the Chinese
argued that Hong Kong was a solely internal affair.

That spat was off the record, yet both the American and Chinese missions in New York released
statements indicating their great mutual frustration. The US declared that China’s behaviour over Hong
Kong ‘coupled with PRC’s gross cover-up and mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis … should make
obvious to all that Beijing is not behaving as a responsible UN member state’ (US Government 2020).
The Chinese retorted with an extensive reckoning of US ‘power politics and acts of bullying’, including its
withdrawal from the Paris agreement, Iranian nuclear deal and Open Skies Treaty, concluding that ‘the
United States is the trouble maker in the world’ (PRC Government 2020).

Assessing the fallout of Covid-19 at the UN

Sino-American relations at the UN haven’t collapsed completely. Just one day after the heated Hong
Kong debate, the Security Council passed a resolution extending a UN arms embargo on South Sudan,
which the US backs and China has long opposed because of its links to leaders in Juba. Beijing refrained
from vetoing this text after US officials committed to a review of the arms embargo to get the resolution
through, also persuading two of the three African members of the council to support it. The fact that the
two powers can juggle public name-calling with routine transactional diplomacy belies claims that they’re
already in ‘Cold War’ territory. American and Chinese officials have also been careful in recent years to

After Covid-19 Volume 2: Australia, the region and multilateralism 77

avoid major disputes over North Korea as well—reflecting a shared desire for calm in Northeast Asia—
showing that they can still cooperate on areas of common interest.

There will be a number of major tests of Sino-American relations at the UN in the coming months. They
include the unfolding row over US efforts to renew UN sanctions on Iran under the terms of the 2015
nuclear deal, despite having quit the bargain in 2018, which has sparked a showdown with Beijing and
Moscow as well as Washington’s European allies. November’s US elections will also have far-reaching
effects on UN affairs. If Joe Biden defeats President Trump, Sino-American relations almost certainly will
remain difficult, but the US is certain to re-engage with many of the elements of the UN that Trump has
rejected. If Trump wins re-election, he’s liable to continue—or perhaps intensify—his attacks on both
multilateralism and China.

Under any circumstances, Beijing and Washington are likely to continue their competition for formal and
informal influence over UN entities. Having used its financial muscle in the WHO dispute, Beijing, which
to date has donated very little to other elements of the UN humanitarian system such as the World Food
Programme, may increasingly use its financial clout to build its influence. The US response will vary
depending on who sits in the White House. Following this year’s termination of US cooperation with the
WHO, a second Trump administration could equally threaten to cut off American relations with other UN
agencies in which China is gaining influence. By contrast, a Biden administration would most probably
attempt to limit China’s role by taking an activist approach to rebuilding alliances with other states at
the UN.

In this context, other powers that want to avoid bipolar competition paralysing the UN system have some
capacity to help keep multilateralism alive. Even if the Democrats win the US elections, American allies
shouldn’t leave the task of revitalising international cooperation to Washington alone. Australia and the
EU demonstrated how this can be done by pulling together a cross-regional coalition of states to call for
the investigation into the WHO’s initial handling of Covid-19 at the WHA in May. The EU has also led a drive
for international cooperation on a Covid-19 vaccine, without the support of either Washington or Beijing.

As Covid-19 claims more lives and takes its economic toll, policymakers in Canberra, Brussels and
like-minded powers can work to build similar coalitions to address issues, including:
• strengthening health systems to handle future waves of Covid-19 and other diseases
• economic measures to stimulate the recovery from the Covid-induced recession
• political and humanitarian action to support fragile states grappling with the virus.

Nonetheless, it will be hard to harness multilateralism to productive ends if the US and China frame global
affairs as a zero-sum competition. The two powers’ response to the Covid-19 crisis has shown how they
can exploit and undermine multilateral organisations in their contest for global influence. The pandemic
has at least done other states the service of illustrating how fragile some international institutions will be
in a period of major-power competition.

As China and the US contend for power, the UN system is sadly liable to be too much a battleground where
the pair jockey for power, and too little a haven of cooperation.

Gowan R, Dworkin A 2019. Three crises and an opportunity: Europe’s stake in multilateralism, European Council on Foreign
Relations, September, online.
PRC Government 2020. ‘Statement by the Permanent Mission of China to the United Nations’, Permanent Mission of the PRC
to the UN, 28 May, online.
US Government 2020. ‘Call for UN Security Council meeting on Hong Kong’, US Mission to the UN, 27 May, online.

After Covid-19 Volume 2: Australia, the region and multilateralism 79

After Covid-19
Volume 2
Australia, the region and multilateralism
The global Covid-19 crisis continues to dominate the international strategic
environment, fuelling uncertainty about the future. The only thing that’s certain is
that this pandemic will be with us for some time yet, meaning that Australia, like
other nations, needs to be prepared to manage its response to the pandemic while
simultaneously focusing on the future.

This volume of After Covid-19 builds on volume 1 and identifies some of the future
challenges and opportunities as they relate to Australia’s role in the region and the
multilateral system.

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