US ambassador to UN nominee Linda Thomas-Greenfield pledges to counter China’s ‘authoritarian agenda’

Owen Churchill
·5-min read

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the Biden administration’s pick for US ambassador to the United Nations (UN), said on Wednesday that she would use her tenure to counter China’s influence in the body’s powerful Security Council, resist its efforts to install Chinese nationals in key UN leadership positions, and push for greater scrutiny of Beijing’s development finance operations in Africa.

“We know China is working across the UN system to drive an authoritarian agenda that stands in opposition to the founding values of the institution – American values,” Thomas-Greenfield told senators during a confirmation hearing. “Their success depends on our continued withdrawal. That will not happen on my watch.”

China in recent years installed a number of its own officials in leadership roles at the UN, including high ranking jobs at the International Telecommunication Union and the International Civil Aviation Organization, and its representatives frequently thwart resolutions via vetoes alongside Russia.

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Thomas-Greenfield said China is seeking to insert its own “harmful” language into UN resolutions.

As well as countering Beijing’s actions within the UN, Thomas-Greenfield said she would also work with leaders in Africa, where China is investing heavily in infrastructure projects, to “push back on China’s self-interested and parasitic development goals” in the continent.

A 35-year veteran of the US Foreign Service who headed the State Department’s bureau of Africa affairs during the Obama administration, Thomas-Greenfield has previously argued for US cooperation with China when it came to the two countries’ presences in Africa.

Senators, mostly Republicans, pressed Thomas-Greenfield repeatedly on Wednesday about her decision in 2019 to accept a paid invitation to speak at the Chinese government-funded Confucius Institute at Savannah State University, where she spoke favourably of China’s investment efforts in Africa via the Belt and Road Initiative.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield answers questions from Senator Ted Cruz (not pictured) at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday. Photo: EPA-EFE
Linda Thomas-Greenfield answers questions from Senator Ted Cruz (not pictured) at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday. Photo: EPA-EFE

In that speech, Thomas-Greenfield said that “win-win-win cooperation” between the US, China and African continent was possible, and argued that criticism of Beijing’s “predatory lending” practices overseas missed the fact that the US was not offering adequate alternatives.

Savannah State University has since severed its relations with the Confucius Institute, amid concerns aired by lawmakers about the organisation’s role in promoting the Chinese Communist Party line and stifling discussion on subjects it deems politically sensitive.

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On Wednesday, Thomas-Greenfield said she “truly [regretted] having accepted that invitation and having had my name associated with the Confucius Institute,” telling senators her decision to speak at the historically black college came from a long-standing wish to encourage more black and Hispanic students to consider careers in the Foreign Service.

In sharp contrast to her 2019 speech, Thomas-Greenfield on Wednesday said that China’s investment strategy in Africa “has not worked for Africans,” citing the use of imported Chinese labour, substandard quality of work, and the “deep debt” countries are left with.

If the Senate votes to confirm Thomas-Greenfield as expected, she will join an administration that has pledged a hardline approach to dealing with China’s economic practices and global presence.

On Tuesday, Biden’s pick for Commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo, told a Senate panel she would use tools such as tariffs and export restrictions against China “to the fullest extent possible” to address Beijing’s human rights abuses and anticompetitive economic practices.

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And before his confirmation, Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he agreed with the Trump administration’s determination that China’s treatment of Uygurs and other ethnic minority groups in the country’s northwest constituted “genocide”.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Thomas-Greenfield revealed that Biden’s State Department is now conducting its own review of that determination amid concerns that “all of the procedures were not followed”, but indicated that she did not disagree with its substance.

“What is happening with the Uygurs is horrendous, and we have to recognise it for what it is,” she said.

Thomas-Greenfield is vying for the ambassadorial role as the Biden administration seeks to reverse the United States’ retreat in recent years from multilateral, international frameworks.

Under Trump, the US withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council and the World Health Organization (WHO), pulled out of the Paris climate accord, exited the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and the Iran nuclear deal, and threatened to leave Nato and the World Trade Organization.

Disengagement by the world’s largest economy from the global stage has dovetailed with the ascent of its second. Beijing increased funding to the WHO in the wake of Washington’s withdrawal, joined a new Asia-Pacific trade deal last November, and has rallied dozens of UN Human Rights Council members to publicly support its actions in Xinjiang.

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First and foremost, we need to be there,” Thomas-Greenfield said of the UN Human Rights Council, which Biden has pledged to rejoin. “We can work from inside to make the organisation better. If we’re on the outside we have no voice.”

The recently departed US ambassador to the UN under Trump, Kelly Craft, used her final weeks in her role to trumpet increased US support for Taiwan, which has not been a member of the UN since 1971, when China joined.

A video screen shows Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and outgoing US Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft meeting virtually on January 14. Photo: The United States Mission to the United Nations via AP
A video screen shows Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and outgoing US Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft meeting virtually on January 14. Photo: The United States Mission to the United Nations via AP

“The United States will always stand with Taiwan,” Craft said in a virtual meeting with Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen on January 14, days after the Trump administration lifted self-imposed restrictions on US diplomats’ dealings with Taiwanese counterparts.

Craft was expected to visit the island earlier this month, but the trip was called off when all travel was cancelled.

On Wednesday, Thomas-Greenfield said it was incumbent on the US to continue supporting Taiwan and “provide them the security that they need to push against any efforts by the Chinese to compromise their security”.

Asked by Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican, whether that support should include weapons sales, Thomas-Greenfield said: “My guess is yes, that would include providing them with the wherewithal to also support their own security.”

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