MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
President Trump says he might cut funding to the World Health Organization. He calls it too China-centric and says the WHO has criticized his policies in the U.S. Well, the U.S. is the largest donor to the WHO, as it is to other international institutions, so why does China have so much influence in these organizations? NPR's Michele Kelemen takes a look.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: China has made a show of its aid to countries hard-hit by the pandemic. Although the U.S. remains the top international donor, the administration believes America doesn't get enough credit for that. And President Trump is particularly angry with the WHO.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You know, we fund it. And they seem to be - you know, I said - recently on social media I said, they seem to be very China-centric.
KELEMEN: Trump is now threatening, as he puts it, a very powerful hold on that assistance. Jeremy Konyndyk of the Center for Global Development worked in the Obama administration and pushed for reforms at the WHO for its failings during the Ebola outbreak.
JEREMY KONYNDYK: This administration has not used the multilateral system as a tool for advancing U.S. priorities in the way that other ones have. And so when we leave a vacuum there, it does open up space for others to fill.
KELEMEN: China has been trying to increase its influence not just at the WHO but across the U.N. system for years. That has accelerated while the Trump administration focused on criticizing multilateral institutions, according to Richard Gowan of the International Crisis Group.
RICHARD GOWAN: Chinese diplomats work assiduously in the U.N.'s more obscure development committees and human rights committees, slowly building up influence and using their financial muscle with poorer countries while Washington is often just missing in action around the U.N. system.
KELEMEN: Speaking via Skype, Gowan points to the paralysis in the U.N. Security Council too, as the U.S. tries to get the U.N. to pin the blame on China for the pandemic, and China bristles at the criticism.
GOWAN: You know, the U.S. has not been focusing on what the U.N. can do to contain COVID-19. It's been focusing on how to score some political points against Beijing at a pretty desperate time.
KELEMEN: Gowan says, for now, U.N. officials have to be cautious with Beijing. Konyndyk, who also spoke via Skype, says that's the nature of multilateral institutions like the World Health Organization. All member states have a voice.
KONYNDYK: So if WHO's member states decide they want WHO to apply a much more take-no-prisoners approach to calling out every deficiency in public health practice and its member states, well, they're not only going to be calling out China.
KELEMEN: He says they'll be calling out the U.S. and others too.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.