BY ROBBIE GRAMER, COLUM LYNCH, Foreign Policy, F
In one of her final acts as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley tried but failed to prevent a veteran Chinese diplomat from landing an influential post as the U.N. special envoy to Africa’s Great Lakes region.
The diplomatic bid reflects growing concern among President Donald Trump’s national security team that China is seeking to assert its power through international organizations such as the United Nations in areas traditionally under the West’s sphere of influence.
Her failure underscored the limits of U.S. power to dictate critical staffing jobs at the United Nations. To some critics, it also showcased a hypocrisy in the Trump administration’s approach to multilateral institutions: withdrawing funding and engagement from them while trying to stymie China’s influence. The back-channel discussions between Haley’s office and the U.N. secretary-general’s office were described to Foreign Policy by three U.S. and U.N. officials familiar with the internal deliberations.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres dismissed U.S. misgivings last month and appointed Huang Xia, a veteran Chinese diplomat who has served as Beijing’s ambassador to several African countries, as his envoy to the strategically vital region.
“The Trump administration may suddenly be coming to terms with the unintended consequences of walking away from the U.N.,” said Richard Gowan, an expert on U.N. issues at the United Nations University. “I’m not sure that, early on, the administration gave much mind to the obvious outcome of stepping back at the U.N., which would be to allow China to fill the gap.”
The National Security Council declined to comment for this story. The State Department did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Huang’s ascension marks one more way that China is augmenting its influence on the international stage. Since the end of the Cold War, China has pushed to install its diplomats in senior U.N. roles and expand its participation in U.N. peacekeeping missions. It now has more peacekeepers around the world than the other four veto-wielding U.N. powers—Britain, France, Russia, and the United States—combined and remains one of the largest financial contributors to the international body.
Guterres himself has signaled that as the United States retreats from the United Nations, China would be eager to pick up the mantle. “If one country decides not to be present—and I’m talking about countries with an important global reach like the United States or China … I can guarantee someone else will occupy it,” he said in 2017, referring to the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.
In the past year, China has effectively harnessed the United Nations’ soft power to promote President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign-policy initiative, the Belt and Road Initiative, in the developing world. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned that the project allows China to engage in “predatory economic activity” that threatens to leave poor countries deeper in debt. “When China comes calling, it’s not always to the good of your citizens,” Pompeo said following a visit to Panama last October.
In December, Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, appointed a senior director of multilateral affairs, Elizabeth Erin Walsh, with a mandate to check Chinese influence at the U.N. and other international organizations.
Experts point to Washington’s declining influence at the United Nations in other realms. In one example, Guterres rebuffed a plea from Washington last year to refrain from hiring a former Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, as the U.N. high commissioner for human rights.
Huang, who has more than 30 years of diplomatic experience, served as Beijing’s ambassador to Niger, Senegal, and the Republic of Congo in recent years—at a time when the countries struck major investment and infrastructure deals with China.
His diplomatic skill is what worries some U.S. officials most. They are wary he will use his perch at Turtle Bay to advance China’s interests in Africa’s Great Lakes region, which includes some of the most resource-rich and politically unstable countries on the continent.
“He’s been an extraordinarily good Chinese diplomat. And that’s part of the problem,” said one U.S. official familiar with the internal deliberations. The official said Huang “knows the region and can play it to China’s advantage.”
“Will he stand where he sits? Will he represent the U.N. position, or will he represent Beijing’s interest?” said Judd Devermont, a former senior U.S. intelligence official on Africa. “That’s still untested.”
Still, bringing senior Chinese diplomats more into the fold of multilateral organizations could have advantages for the United States, said Devermont, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “When I look at Chinese engagement, particularly military engagement, in Africa, they are most productive and least counter to U.S. interests when things are done through the U.N. framework,” he said.