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8 April 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 12:41pm

On China and the World Health Organisation, Donald Trump wants to have it both ways

The attack on the international body reveals the core contradiction in the president’s geopolitical instincts.

By Emily Tamkin

On 7 April, amid a global pandemic, Donald Trump returned to familiar territory: bashing China and an international institution. “The WHO really blew it,” the US president tweeted, referring to the World Health Organisation. “For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet very China-centric. We will be giving that a good look. Fortunately I rejected their advice on keeping our borders open to China early on. Why did they give us such a faulty recommendation?” 

That evening, at his press briefing, Trump announced that the US would cut funding to the organisation, before backtracking and claiming that he said only that he would look at holding funding to the WHO, which, he said, has historically been biased toward China.

In one sense, the tweet is par for the course for Trump. He has been critical of China since before taking office and has launched a trade war against the country, though he has also repeatedly lauded China’s leader, Xi Jinping, whom he has previously referred to as a friend, and whose handling of the coronavirus outbreak he repeatedly praised this winter. Trump’s criticism of international institutions is also familiar – specifically, the United Nations, of which the WHO is an agency. 

What is more, the president’s tweet is not entirely wrong (though he did not, as he has claimed, entirely close the border to China). “He is right that the US pays a far bigger chunk of WHO costs and wider UN humanitarian budget than China does,” Richard Gowan, UN director at Crisis Group, told me via email. “Beijing has tried to become a multilateral leader on the cheap over the last decade, using its political clout to gain influence but not making serious investments in bodies like WHO, WFP [World Food Programme] or UNHCR [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees].”

Moreover, Gowan writes, “the WHO has ducked and weaved to avoid offending China throughout the crisis, making it an easy target for Trump.” On 14 January, the WHO tweeted that “preliminary investigations have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus.” More recently, a Canadian WHO official appeared to attempt to evade a reporter’s questions about whether the organisation would admit Taiwan, a move opposed by China.

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But in pulling away from international organisations, Trump is contributing to the very conditions he is now ranting about. China is able to step into a position of increased influence in what remains of the multilateral order not despite the US’s withdrawal from the world, but because of it. 

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“China, for its part, has been stepping up its efforts to engage UN institutions, particularly in light of moves by the US government stepping back from international engagement,” writes Rui Zhong, an associate in the China program at the Wilson Centre in Washington, DC.

“There is an unnecessary contradiction at the heart of Trump’s attitude to multilateralism. On the one hand, the administration has retreated from leadership across the UN system. But then it complains that China is leading instead,” agrees Gowan, adding that the US did not lead a multilateral response to Covid-19 in the way that the Obama administration did during the Ebola crisis in 2014. “And yet Trump is now lamenting that the WHO is in hock to China.”

That Trump is spending his mid-pandemic public appearances yelling about China and the WHO (even if that criticism is at least in some part correct) will make his China problem worse, not better. 

“While Washington denounces China’s manipulation and muzzling of UN agencies, including the WHO, Chinese diplomats are showing up with a concrete vision, resources, and a compelling narrative,” writes Kristine Lee, associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “I do think there needs to be an interrogation of the WHO’s relationship with China, given that Beijing recently announced a large donation to the organisation, but Washington’s criticism of Beijing in the UN will ring hollow if it doesn’t more fundamentally re-engage with these types of international organisations and show commitment to multilateralism.”

That Trump spent a press briefing threatening to hold funding suggests this is a condition that will not be met.