Enhancing outreach and promoting reform
In a congressional hearing in June 2021, the US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, stressed the need to invest in the UN, stating that China has been “aggressive and coercive” in wielding its power at the global body and that the US must push to rein in Beijing’s “malign influence”. As of 2022, China is the second largest contributor to the UN (15.25 percent) after the US (22.0 percent), with its share set to increase by 12 percent. Before August 2021, Chinese officials headed four of the 15 principal agencies of the UN. Two – the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – as well as the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the UN think tank, remain under the leadership of Chinese.
From the US perspective, China frequently colludes with Russia in the UNSC to block action. Beijing is also accused of using its influence to suppress criticism by the UNHRC of the abysmal Chinese human rights record. This behavior exemplifies China’s overbearing presence at the UN. In this context, the rise of China has only strengthened the notion of the UN as “toothless”. Through greater outreach, the Quad can help enhance the UN’s multilateral structure to challenge China’s more authoritarian and vindictive attitude, as demonstrated by its maneuvering in the UNHRC.
There are areas of synergy for the Quad and the UN that would not be predicated on countering Chinese influence. The UN could be a strategic medium for the Quad to advance ambitious initiatives on vaccine distribution, climate change and critical technology. For India and Japan – emerging global powers who have taken a greater role in various dimensions of international security such as through contributions to UN peacekeeping operations – a united Quad in the UN can work collectively to garner support for UNSC reform that would see the two nations become permanent members. (Notably, China is the second biggest contributor of funds for UN peacekeeping operations after the US.) Beyond the UNSC, both countries, with the support of the other two Quad members, could push for greater Asian representation and voting power in the Bretton Woods institutions.
The benefits of cooperation would certainly be mutual. Greater collaboration with the Quad can be a way for the UN to advance its own outreach to the Indo-Pacific, not only by reinforcing rules-based multilateralism but also by enabling the UN to fulfil its role as guarantor and arbiter in maintaining global security. Enhanced outreach to Asia, particularly ASEAN, through the Quad could further help legitimize the UN’s commitment to peacemaking and conflict resolution. Deeper integration between Quad and the UN, in concert with other like-minded forums such as the Group of Four (G4) bidding for permanent UNSC seats (Brazil, Germany, India and Japan), could help push forward long overdue UN reforms and help revitalize the institution for the 21st century.
Beyond the romanticism
Quad-UN synergy cannot be romanticized. The UN is dominated by rich Western nations and the North-South divide within the forum is wide. A united Quad cannot be a proxy for the US (or the ‘West’) but must fairly reflect the interests of all four states in the Indo-Pacific. Some key areas where the Quad can effectively use its collective sway include limiting China’s undue influence as a permanent UNSC member, given the structural limitations on the diplomatic clout of India and Japan in the institution. In Quad’s core priority areas such as climate action and Covid-19 vaccines, the group can band together and utilize the UN platform to push forward their agenda for global good.
Collective bargaining and coalition building within international organizations is not a new strategy. During the Korean War for instance, India brought together the small Commonwealth countries to play a constraining role by pushing through a resolution in 1952 in face of rising US-Soviet tensions. More recently, the BRICS grouping (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) banded together to exercise their “collective financial and monetary statecraft”, based on shared perceptions and objectives, in the pursuit of common foreign and economic policy goals. On a bilateral level, the Quad countries already cooperate in the UN (a key aspect of the India-Japan global partnership). Now, they must elevate such bilateral engagement to initiate Quad consultations on joint strategies that bolster their bargaining power and help advance shared interests.
Greater focus by the Quad on cooperating within the UN can have three important effects: It can help legitimize UN resolutions through greater outreach, give the Quad powers greater say over how disputes pan out, and imbue their collective diplomacy with legitimacy and authority.