China’s expanding UN role denounced by Biden’s ambassador nominee

Limiting Chinese influence and focusing on refugees will be among Linda Thomas-Greenfield's priorities as chief diplomat to the U.N.

Nominee for U.N. ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield answers questions at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. (Greg Nash/The Hill/Pool Photo)
Nominee for U.N. ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield answers questions at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. (Greg Nash/The Hill/Pool Photo)
Posted January 27, 2021 at 3:59pm

Senators used the Wednesday confirmation hearing of President Joe Biden’s nominee to serve as ambassador to the United Nations to underline their concerns about the influence China has accrued in recent years within the multilateral body.

“When China has asserted leadership — and taken on leadership roles — in U.N. bodies, these organizations have ceased to uphold the values and interests of the broader international community,” said incoming Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J. “Bit by bit, step by step, they are instead made to reflect China’s unilateral priorities, often at the expense of human rights.”

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a retired career U.S. diplomat with 35 years spent in the Foreign Service, said if confirmed to serve as U.N. ambassador she would “commit to working with this committee to counter China at the U.N., to fight against all efforts by the Chinese government to add harmful language to U.N. resolutions and to resist China’s efforts to over-fill key U.N. positions with Chinese citizens.”

Known broadly by her initials, LTG, Thomas-Greenfield, who previously served as assistant secretary of State for African Affairs, director general of the Foreign Service and as ambassador to Liberia in the Obama administration, pledged to work across the board at the U.N. “to ensure that either Americans or like-minded allies hold those significant positions.”

Chinese nationals lead four out of the 15 specialized U.N. agencies: the Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.N. Industrial Development Organization, the International Telecommunication Union and the International Civil Aviation Organization. A U.S. citizen heads only one, the World Bank.

The Chinese government has used its influence with those agencies as well as with other U.N. entities led by like-minded foreign civil servants to push for language in official U.N. documents that espouses favored Chinese Communist Party concepts. This language, critics say, is intended to undercut independent criticism of issues such as human rights abuses and state-sponsored surveillance committed by Beijing and other authoritarian regimes.

“We know China is working across the U.N. system to drive an authoritarian agenda that stands in opposition to the founding values of the institution — American values,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “Their success depends on our continued withdrawal. That will not happen on my watch.”

[Biden’s foreign policy nominees have long track records]

In bemoaning Beijing’s greater influence at the United Nations, Republican committee members largely abstained from any criticism of how four years of Trump administration actions, which included the withdrawal from and funding cuts to  certain U.N. agencies, created a power vacuum that China exploited. Many GOP conservatives have long been skeptical of the utility of multilateralism.

“The result is a U.N. that can be used by the CCP to silence Chinese political dissent, advance its foreign policy aims, promote its own authoritarian values and even set technical standards and norms that will define the technologies of the future,” said outgoing committee Chairman Jim Risch.

The Idaho Republican said China’s “malign influence” across U.N. agencies became especially notable last year with the World Health Organization, which has struggled under the leadership of Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to carry out a thorough investigation into the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Beijing has been able to stymie a WHO investigation for nearly a year.

Now that Biden has reversed former President Donald Trump’s planned withdrawal from the global health body, Risch urged Thomas-Greenfield not to forget China’s manipulation of the WHO.

If confirmed, as is expected, Thomas-Greenfield will have a seat in Biden's Cabinet — something that is not always the case for U.N. ambassadors. She told the committee she plans to focus at the U.N. on the global plight of refugees, noting that half of her career at the State Department was spent focusing on humanitarian issues.

Because of funding cuts ordered by the Trump White House, the United States is more than $1 billion in arrears in its U.N. peacekeeping dues.

Thomas-Greenfield said working to see the United States gets caught up in its financial obligations to the U.N. “will be one of my highest priorities in New York.”

“Not paying our bills really does diminish our power and it diminishes our leadership,” she said. “We need to pay our bills to have a seat at the table. And our leadership is needed at the table. We know that when we cede our leadership, others jump in very quickly to fill the void.”

Committee members asked Thomas-Greenfield about an October 2019 speech she gave at the Confucius Institute (since closed) at Savannah State University, the oldest historically Black college in Georgia.

Thomas-Greenfield, who is Black, said she has a longstanding relationship with the university and accepted the invitation to speak at the school as part of her commitment to encouraging young Black Americans to pursue foreign affairs careers.

“Truthfully, I wish I had not accepted this specific invitation,” Thomas-Greenfield said, adding she supported congressional efforts to crack down on Confucius Institutes, a program funded by the Chinese government to teach Mandarin language to American students. “I came away from the experience, frankly, alarmed at the way the Confucius Institutes were engaging with the Black community in Georgia. It reminded me of what I’d seen in Africa, the Chinese government going after those in need with fewer resources.”

Her 2019 speech focused on U.S. and China economic and diplomatic engagement in Africa. The speech, which was obtained and posted by The Washington Post, warned that U.S. diplomacy on the continent was lagging behind Beijing and urged African governments to be more skeptical about investment loans from China that can become long-term debt traps.