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China-U.S. A role reversal in global governance

The US will end its relationship with the World Health Organization (WHO): Donald Trump announced on the 29th of May from the White House in relation to the management of the coronavirus pandemic. This dramatic act signals a reversal of roles in global governance.

Multilateral bodies have long been led by Washington but this trend is changing and Sino-US tensions are affecting global governance. To assert its role, Beijing is promoting Chinese-led appointments and new entities.

China is now one of the United Nations' largest funders while simultaneously as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, the People's Republic is also the largest contributor to troops deployed in peacekeeping missions, primarily active in Africa.

China's presence at the UN summit extends to several bodies, including the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) chaired by Liu Fang; the United Nations Organization for Industrial Development (UNIDO) headed by Li Yong, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) chaired by Zhao Houlin. In the World Trade Organization (WTO, WTO) Yi Xiaozhun serves as Deputy Director General, while Zhang Tao is the Deputy Director General of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Liu Yanguo is the Director of the International Labour Organization (ITCILO) and Xue Hanqin has been appointed Vice-President of the International Court of Justice (ICC) in 2018. From 2019 the role of Director General of FAO, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has been held by Qu Dongyu, former Deputy Minister of Agriculture of the People's Republic and the first Chinese official to hold this role.

Beijing's interest in the United Nations, and the growing influence within its bodies, is an essential point in the foreign policy strategy of China which has a specific focus on developing countries. The People's Republic sits among the great powers as a member of the Security Council with a right of veto while at the same time presenting itself as the leader of the Group of 77, which since 1964 represents emerging economies and now has 134 nations.

Among the international bodies, China held the leadership of the WHO from 2007 to 2017 with Margaret Chan in her role as head of the Directorate General of the World Health Organization, and also with Interpol, which was entrusted to Meng Hongwei until 2018.

The United States has always been the largest funder of the WHO but during the covid emergency the role reversed; Beijing's contributions increased while Trump decided to suspend funding to the organization.

In recent years, the US has reduced its funding to the United Nations, while also withdrawing from some UN bodies, such as the Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2018. This diminishing U.S. activism on the international stage represents a new trend in Sino-American balances.

This direction is also visible in the creation of new multilateral bodies, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and the subsequent accession to these institutions by major US allies, including Australia, the UK, Italy, Germany and France.

The development of the Belt Road initiative is the most obvious manifestation of the growing geo-economic role, confirmed by the agreements signed with 140 countries and regions, increasing Beijing's influence in the Asian neighborhood, especially with countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), including Singapore which is now the main destination for Chinese investment in Asia.

Beijing collaborates with these countries at a number of multilateral forums (ASEAN Regional Forum, Asia-Europe Meeting). The establishment of a China-ASEAN Free Trade Area (ACFTA) has also increased trade, especially following the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade area in 2017.

The growth of the Chinese economy may lead in the coming years to a transfer of the headquarters of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from Washington to Beijing. Christine Lagarde referred to this at a 2017 conference at the Center for Global Development, confirming that the Fund's headquarters must be in the country with the highest nominal GDP. Since its inception in 1945, the United States has dominated the global market and has been the fund's largest shareholder. When China overtakes the US as the first economy, there will be new dynamics in the organization.

China also achieved a record in promoting cultural activities, reaching, alongside Italy, 55 UNESCO sites (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization); contrasting with the decision in 2018 by the United States to leave the institution. UNESCO is one of the strongest spheres of cultural influence internationally.

As Washington moves away from multilateral bodies and free trade agreements, China is increasing its global position.

Article was originally published on Affaritaliani in Italian

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