China a responsible global leader? Role of its aid program

In an interview in New China, the founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Klaus Schwab stressed his expectations China is becoming a “responsible and responsive” global leader. This is happening in the midst of the enormous uncertainties created by the US elections, which makes Brexit already seem as a small blip in how global politics are reshaping.

Demonstrating China is a responsible global player has been a key feature of China’s foreign policy and diplomacy, as it has been integrating in the global economy. Its aid program, as we argue in a recent draft paper, has played a key role in this.

Recent announcement on its aid program highlighted how China continues to see its global role growing. At the 6th Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), President Xi Jinping pledged US$60 billion in aid to Africa, tripling previous commitments. This growth happened at a time when China’s growth model (and hence its external economic relations) was shifting, and the much-maligned search for natural resources is becoming less central (one’s best source for the debate on China in Africa is work by Deborah Brautigam and colleagues).

China’s global diplomacy has transformed radically (with much continuity in official rhetoric), and its aid program moved largely in tandem. From the early role in the post-War context, its role in the Non-Aligned Movement, and its role in the UN (which it rejoined in 1971), as China started to open up its global economy, its aid program was increasingly aligned with its economic interests – also increasingly diverse and often making it a ‘partner of choice’. This aligmnet has made it subject to much criticism, including from the aid advocates that that have – rightly and successfully promoted – untied aid.

However, we wonder if tis represents the new normal – even though some might argue it’s not that new at all. Recent empirical research is indicating that the way China’s aid is aligned with its national interest is not as exceptional as some critiques suggest. Motivations for China to be part of the UN, similarly, are not substantively different from those of other global players. And finally, and perhaps most importantly at this juncture, global politics and the major advocates of the international development agenda have been changing course, and one fears with increasing speed.

China’s international principles still include this of ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ – I for one agree that venues like the WEF could do worse than trying to foster these.

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