The question is whether the country will be able to engage with him beyond relations built on financial resources and diplomatic capital
When President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, his vision was for China to become the leader of the global south. His Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched in 2013, and the Global Development Initiative (GDI), which Xi announced at the UN General Assembly last September, are tools for projecting Chinese influence in the developing world. world, writes for the Financial Times Yu Jie, senior researcher on China at the British Institute of International Affairs “Chatham House”.
The key word in Beijing’s description of the Belt and Road Initiative is sustainability, with the emphasis less on physical infrastructure projects and more on poverty alleviation and sustainable development through subsidies and capacity building, all in line with the Goals of the United Nations for sustainable development by 2030
So far, the GDI has attracted less criticism in the West than its older sibling, the colossal BRI, with its reputation for opacity and lack of financial sustainability. Nevertheless, the GDI demonstrates many of the distinguishing features of past major Chinese initiatives. It is fluid in nature, non-transparent in terms of implementation and flexible in terms of the measures used to implement projects and offer subsidies. This has long been the preferred style of China’s political elites. Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping described his spirit of reform in the late 1970s as “crossing the river by feeling the stones.”
Xi Jinping took the same approach with GDI. Deng used this tactic for the domestic economy at a time when China was isolated after the Cultural Revolution. But Xi needs multi-country buy-in to achieve his vision, just as Beijing’s global relations have become increasingly strained following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the military and diplomatic standoff over Taiwan.
Another problem is foreign attitudes about the nature of one-party rule in China and the belief that policy is impeccably planned and executed by the top echelons of Xi Jinping’s team. This may lead to unrealistic expectations among developing countries participating in the GDI. Indeed, the initiative required grueling coordination between various ministries, agencies and state-owned banks in Beijing.
China has now realized that some aspects of its international development programs are no longer as popular as they used to be – in part because some of these projects carry serious risks for the countries involved if proper due diligence is lacking. In the case of the GDI, China should focus on making a clear and concrete plan of action tailored to specific regions and topics. This would improve the clarity and financial soundness of the scheme.
But the eventual success of the GDI does not depend solely on China’s money and capabilities. It also relies on the cooperation of some 60 countries already part of the GDI “Group of Friends”, established within the UN in January 2022. For many countries in this group, the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic have exacerbated problems with and without it their fragile social support networks. These countries, many of them extremely vulnerable, crave meaningful assistance, not diplomatic platitudes.
Over the past two decades, China has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into building physical infrastructure in the developing world. Meanwhile, many participating countries are pinning their hopes on China, as well as advanced economies, to continue funding programs to reduce poverty and ensure public health.
But Beijing’s spending spree must end as the country grapples with its own economic woes. This presents China with a dilemma: can it tighten its belt while maintaining close relations with developing countries? Beijing is trying to get their support in international institutions, especially on issues related to Taiwan.
The ultimate test of Beijing’s economic statesmanship is whether it will be able to engage with developing countries beyond relationships built on financial resources and diplomatic capital. Pouring money into these places isn’t always guaranteed to win hearts and minds. China needs to show that it understands what these economies really want from interacting with it and what they fear, based on its experience of past initiatives.
Beijing should avoid the mistakes it made with the BRI and instead focus on quality project implementation and bringing real benefits to participating countries. This requires more than simply forming a group of friends, which promises much but risks delivering little.