This paper discusses the international economic organisation that is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). It asks whether this constitutes a true shift to multilateralism in the economic diplomacy of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) (1). The research question is: to which extent does the AIIB adhere to multilateral norms from 2015 until late 2018? This is done through measuring dimensions of multilateralism, usually found in international organisations, against the AIIB’s legal framework and project-selection. Additionally, it asks whether the AIIB is an expression of a new multilateral mode of Chinese economic diplomacy, which has previously been dominantly bilateral.
The first part builds the framework by defining multilateralism and multilateral organisations. It also discusses multilateral development banks (MDB) and their role as multilateral economic organisations. From this, the paper constructs a set of dimensions it will use to test on the AIIB in the second part. The second part first briefly describes the AIIB and the context of its founding. Then, it analyses to which extent the AIIB truly is a multilateral organisation. It does this by looking at project-selection and re-assessing initial criticism of the AIIB using present knowledge. In addition, it discusses to which extent the AIIB constitutes a shift from bilateral toward multilateral Chinese economic diplomacy. The conclusion summarises the research findings. The research is based on analyses of the AIIB’s governance structure and its project-selection. It is supplemented with secondary literature such as media articles, policy reports, and academic papers. Ultimately, it contributes to the growing yet young literature on the AIIB and China’s new role on the international stage.
Multilateralism and International Organisations
Multilateralism is defined as the practice of coordinating national policies in groups of three or more states, through ad hoc arrangements or by means of institutions. Keohane (1990) limits it to intergovernmental arrangements. Institutions are defined as persistent and connected sets of rules, formal and informal, that prescribe behavioural roles, constrain activity, and shape expectations. Multilateral institutions are multilateral arrangements with a persistent set of rules. Intergovernmental ad hoc meetings and short-term arrangements are excluded from the framework in this paper (pp. 731-733).
Ruggie (1992) continues that the multilateral form is an institutional form which coordinates relations among three or more states on the basis of “generalised” principles of conduct – that is, principles which specify appropriate conducts for a class of actions, without regard to the particularistic interests of the parties or the strategic exigencies that may exist in any specific occurrence [emphasis added] (pp. 571-572). The emphasised part refers to diffuse reciprocity: it adjusts the utilitarian lenses for the long view, emphasising that actors expect to benefit in the long run and over many issues, rather than every time on every issue. In addition, multilateralism can also be thought of as being indivisible, which means the scope (both geographic and function) over which costs and benefits are spread. Lastly, it is a demanding form of organising. It requires its participants to actively work towards these four principles – most importantly towards diffuse reciprocity. From this, it can be derived that “multilateralism”, as we understand it so far, presumes cooperation. While not all cooperation is multilateral – all multilateral activities include cooperation across multiple actors.
Multilateralism is a feature of most international institutional arrangements. Reversely, international economic organisations are an expression of multilateralism. They are institutions that exhibit the multilateral form in varying degrees at different points in time. Therefore, multilateralism can be said to be a continuum. In short, multilateralism is an ideology to promote multilateral activity and which distinguishes itself by four dimensions or principles: cooperation, indivisibility, generalised principles of conduct, and diffuse reciprocity (Caporaso, 1992: pp. 601-604). All four principles are interdependent. For a multilateral organisation to be legitimate, it requires voluntary participation, including by weaker members. Diffuse reciprocity is exactly what compels weaker members to join these multilateral institutions, because they are convinced that they will benefit in the longer term and over many issues. If this perception is distorted, participation and cooperation can decrease. Ultimately, multilateralism will decrease too.
Next, MDBs are multilateral organisations (or international organisations) that provide financing and professional advice for the purpose of economic and social development. MDBs have a large membership including both developed donor countries and developing borrower countries. They finance projects in the form of long-term loans at market rates, very-long-term loans below market rates, and through grants. MDBs have played a fundamental role in global development over the past sixty years. They appeared roughly in three waves. The first wave happened during the era of decolonisation from the mid- 1950s to the mid-1970s. They are typically dominated by Western donor countries and focus on developing countries. Most major regional MDBs were also founded in this period. The second wave took place from the early 1990s to the early 2000s. Following the collapse of the communist regimes in central and eastern Europe, they were established to help promote market-oriented economies in those countries. The creation of the AIIB and the New Development Bank (NDB) constitute the third and latest wave of MDBs. They are both led by the emerging economies, with China playing a particularly prominent role (Wang, 2016: pp. 1-2).
Over the years, MBS investments have played an increasingly significant role in infrastructure investments. MBS can act as guarantees for risk and thus also encourage private investments. MDBs help solve inefficiencies by catalysing private and public investments in infrastructure, especially by leveraging their relationships with governments. However, a large “infrastructure gap” has existed in many emerging- market and developing economies. While these economies want to develop their own “core” infrastructure, it is difficult to get the proper financing. This is a major public policy challenge. Moreover, the lack of technical expertise in the regions that need these investments the most is the biggest challenge. In the Asian region alone, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimated that the total investment needed between 2010 and 2020 would be in the order of 8 trillion USD (Wurf, 2017: pp. 231-232). Ultimately, MDBs can play a crucial role in harmonising infrastructure across borders, mediate disputes among neighbouring landlocked countries, and promote cooperation for cross-national or cross-regional infrastructure projects (p. 234). This requires intergovernmental cooperation, generalised principles of conduct, and putting the larger goal of fixing infrastructure issues over national interests. In this sense, it is safe to state that MDBs, to varying degrees, operate in a multilateral fashion. They are an expression of multilateralism. By extension, then, the AIIB is also a multilateral organisation and should be operating in a multilateral fashion.
However, critics of international organisations have argued the opposite. They argue that international organisations are nothing more than instruments in the hands of powerful states (e.g. see: Krasner, 1985; Strange, 1988). Multilateral organisations are important and useful for powerful states, but only because they elicit voluntary participation. This means that there must be sufficient agreement about common purposes which weaker states can expect to benefit from. It other words, the conviction that the rules of conduct will be adhered to and that there is diffuse reciprocity entails weaker states towards cooperation.
Stone (2008) explains this paradox through the argument of informal governance, where international organisations operate according to two parallel sets of rules: formal rules, which embody consensual procedures, and informal rules, which allow exceptional access for powerful countries. During ordinary times, the organisation produces predictable policies that express the consensus view of its most influential members, and it enjoys broad discretion within its zone of delegation. However, the leading state – which is China in the case of the AIIB – may intervene and assume temporary control when urgent strategic objectives override its interest in the organisation’s long-term goals. Informal governance practices allow it to retain decisive influence in the organisation while shedding most of the formal levers of power. Based on this, intervention would undermine the legitimacy of the multilateral organisation. The legitimacy of a multilateral organisation lies in voluntary participation because they are designed in such a way that all of their members should benefit from participating (pp. 590-593). Informal governance undermines multilateralism because it affects different dimensions of multilateralism: it disregards the generalised principles of conducts, affects diffuse reciprocity, and hampers cooperation.
The question is then, how the multilateral form manifests itself in the AIIB. Does China’s preference for bilateral diplomacy influence AIIB’s operations or is the AIIB a replacement for China’s bilateral infrastructure investments? Do national governments’ preferences for certain projects and other countries influence the project selection? Does China capture the AIIB through informal governance? By using the four dimensions of multilateralism to analyse the AIIB, these questions might be answered. In addition, it might provide insights into changes in China’s economic diplomacy. The next part will first discuss the context of the AIIB’s founding, initial assessments, and then perform the analysis.
The AIIB: Context and Analysis
The Chinese Communist Party’s General-Secretary Xi Jinping 习近平, who is also the PRC’s President, first proposed the AIIB in Indonesia in October 2013. It was successfully launched a year later with the singing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) by 21 founding Asian countries (2). In 2015 the Articles of Agreement (AoA) were signed in Beijing. By then, already 57 countries had joined and by October 2015, 53 countries had signed the AoA. The agreement laid out the foundation for signing the actual agreement, which puts in place a legal framework for the bank. It is the charter of the AIIB and established it as an international organisation (Mishra, 2016: pp. 1-2). All members of the AIIB have experience with multilateral banking. Moreover, all the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South-Africa) members are also members of the AIIB (Callaghan & Hubbard, 2016: pp. 118-119).
The key priorities of the AIIB are to invest in sustainable infrastructure and support countries to meet their environmental and development goals; increase connectivity across Central Asia; and mobilise private capital in partnership with other MDBs, governments, and private financiers (AIIB, 2017). The AIIB commenced operations in January 2016 and had 84 approved members by the end of 2017. It has 23 total approved projects with investments of 4.22 billion USD, fifteen of which were approved in 2017 and of which eleven were co-financed with partner MDBs. Private co-financing, which means the mobilisation of private finance in projects, was worth 566 million USD. In addition, in 2017 the AIIB successfully secured short-term and long-term triple-A issuer ratings from the three most important credit rating agencies, successfully published its first audited financial statements, and it set up its internal control system (AIIB Annual Report, 2017: pp. 27-31).
Each member country has appointed a Governor to represent it at the AIIB Board of Governors. All powers of the AIIB are vested in its Board, who can delegate any of its powers to the Board of Directors. It is a non-resident board with 12 Directors of which nine are elected by regional members and three elected by nonregional members. This reflects the Asia-centred purpose of the AIIB. Furthermore, by focusing on cost-effectiveness and efficiency, the non-resident board is in line with the lean and green culture of the AIIB. Most of the operational oversight functions are delegated to the Directors. The President is elected by the Board of Governors and must be a national of a regional member country. The senior management team itself is also very diverse in nationalities (Ibid.: pp. 33-43).
However, the shareholding structure tells another story. While the AIIB does mirror an ‘Asian face’, China is clearly in the ‘driver’s seat’. China is the largest stakeholder in the bank with a total of 30 billion USD. The next two shareholders, India and Russia respectively have 8.52 percent and 6.66 percent stakes. With this, China has 26.06 percent of the voting rights in the AIIB, which gives it a veto power over key decisions that require a 75 percent special majority, such as membership approval, selection of president, increasing capital stock, and changing the size or composition of the board of directors (Mishra, 2016: p. 4; Leksyutina, 2018: p. 92). There is always the danger that the organisation will be captured by the most powerful state in the system, effectively undermining the diffuse reciprocity principle. China may intervene and assume temporary control when urgent strategic objectives override its interests (Wang, 2016: pp. 9-10). However, actual use of the veto for its own benefits would undermine China’s assurances that it would not use the AIIB as its private bank. It would undermine the legitimacy of the AIIB as a multilateral institution by violating the cooperation and diffuse reciprocity dimensions. However, within the foreseeable future China is unlikely to use its veto-power or attempt to capture the AIIB. In addition to the purpose of filling investment gaps, the AIIB was explicitly established out of frustration with western-dominated multilateral organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, which the United States of America (US or USA) has been known to capture through informal influence (e.g. see: Stone, 2018: pp. 589-620). It would be a huge blow to China’s credibility and image as a new “responsible stakeholder”. Therefore, it is unlikely that China will abuse the AIIB in such blatant fashion in the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, the AIIB’s recently new approved governance model could change this. In July 2018, the AIIB changed its governance model to strengthen its role in establishing the policies and strategies of the bank and its ability to hold the President accountable for the management of the AIIB. It will also delegate authority to the President for project-approval. According to the press release, this new model is expected to enhance efficiency and make him more responsible and accountable (3). Despite the robust internal governance, stipulated from article 38 through 43 in the AIIB’s Paper on the Accountability Framework (July 2018), projects will eventually depend on a final approval by the President. This could be cause for concern: despite the board having stronger oversight functions, it allows for a crucial stadium in the decision-making process to be captured by national interests. Consensus, which is part of the cooperation dimension, is a crucial aspect to multilateralism. This gives greater legitimacy to the AIIB’s decision-making and its project-selection. If the President decides to go against the decisions of several rounds of pre-screening by the committees, it could cause a significant loss of faith in both the cooperation and diffuse reciprocity embedded into the multilateral AIIB.
In addition to this new Accountability Framework, the Public Information Policy still needs improvement. Transparency is a crucial aspect to ensure that the AIIB adheres to the principles of conduct and international best practices. As the AIIB increases its number of projects where it is not a co-financier, there will be concerns that China’s traditional wariness about disclosing the details of its own bilateral development finance programs will begin to replicate itself (4).
Another aspect of China’s multilateral shift is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is generally understood that the AIIB should be seen in the context of BRI. The BRI was launched in the same period that the AIIB was proposed (fall 2013) and Xi Jinping explicitly instructed policymakers that the ‘primary task’ of the AIIB is to provide capital for these initiatives. In addition, China created a new 40 billion USD ‘Silk Road fund’. It is argued that these initiatives are, in fact, part of a larger plan to promote China’s economic influence on a global scale. It would allow China to project and expand its regional and global sphere of influence. Therefore, the AIIB was regarded as an attempt by China to develop a rival institution to the US dominated World Bank and Japanese controlled Asian Development Bank (Callaghan & Hubbard, 2016: pp. 123-125). However, based on the AIIB’s willingness to cooperate with other MDBs and comply with WB development standards for these projects, it is unlikely that the AIIB constitutes a threat for other MDBs, but rather fills a complementary function.
In addition, the AIIB could be considered as a multilateral financial mechanism for BRI projects. While China prefers to deal bilaterally with other governments, including for its infrastructure investments, big infrastructural projects would be less prone to criticism from international observers if they were supported by an MDB like the AIIB. BRI projects have gotten a lot of attention, and it is seen by some as a sort of masterplan to lure weaker and smaller countries into China’s economic orbit (5). This means that China would have to capture the AIIB to such an extent, that the AIIB would consistently finance projects along the BRI route. This would be detrimental to the legitimacy of the AIIB as a multilateral organisation.
However, a sampling of AIIB projects shows that at least seven projects so far have been approved that will take place in India. India has been a vocal critic of China’s BRI and unwilling to join or endorse it (6). If the AIIB was, in fact, captured by China, it would be unlikely to fund projects in India and India would have been unlikely to join the AIIB. There is a fundamental distinction between the BRI and the AIIB, namely the fact that the AIIB is a consultative process. Moreover, India is a founding member of the AIIB and was actively involved in its institutionalisation process. India’s problem is primarily with China’s foreign investments and loans that have ulterior motives. So far, the AIIB has proven that it is not part of this (7). Therefore, for now it should be safe to argue that diffuse reciprocity and cooperation are still strongly supported in the AIIB’s project-selection. However, the fact that the AIIB has not been captured yet by China through informal governance, does not mean that it will remain so in the future.
Furthermore, the majority of AIIB projects that have been approved so far are in partnership with other MBDs, underwriting the multilateral approach and credibility of the AIIB. Most of these projects are typical development projects traditionally backed by MDBs rather than strategic upgrades of dual-use or civilian-military infrastructure. Furthermore, AIIB projects have an open tendering process and international competitive bidding. Projects are aimed at providing public goods and address real funding gaps. Projects that are done in partnerships in general follow procurement guidelines of the partner MDB, which guarantees the commitment to stricter standards (8).
The contrast with BRI-projects is remarkable. These projects are usually agreed upon on a bilateral and governmental level without third party assessment. Often, the process does not adhere to international standards such as environmental sustainability, economic viability, and open tenders (9). However, issues with BRI projects have made China realise that loosening or disregarding international standards will only undermine the sustainability of its projects and international trust in China’s multilateral commitments (10). This underscores the difference between China’s bilateral and multilateral approach to lending and development assistance.
The emergence of the AIIB together with BRI has been explained as a new approach to multilateralism by China or even a new form of regionalism (e.g. see: Gu, 2017; Waldmann, 2017). What is clear, is that China is increasingly willing to take up a greater leadership role, both in the region and among developing countries. However, it is still a work in process and the AIIB should be seen more as a learning experience for Chinese multilateralism than an effective new form of multilateralism. Therefore, it can be concluded that the AIIB in and of itself is already multilateral, but not to its fullest potential. The AIIB is strongest in cooperation and diffuse reciprocity. However, it is still working on the rules of conduct and needs to do more to increase its scope. Ultimately, almost two years after becoming operational, the AIIB has not been the big game changer many supporters or opponents made it out to be. Neither does it constitute a dramatic shift to Chinese multilateralism. The fact that BRI receives much more investment and attention from China indicates that China still prefers to deal with countries on a bilateral government-to-government basis.
As BRI is increasingly facing backlash from recipients, there is potential to greatly expand AIIB’s scope and activities as well as improve cooperation with other MDBs and underwrite more MDB best practices. In short, the AIIB can improve on all dimensions of multilateralism. If China truly wants to become a global or regional leader, a “responsible stakeholder”, let alone a “responsible rule-maker” in the new multilateral world, it should aim to make BRI a multilateral project and give a more prominent role to the AIIB to promote multilateralism and cooperation in the region.
- In this paper, the People’s Republic of China (PRC or “China”) excludes the Republic of China (ROC or “Taiwan”), Hong Kong, and Macau.
- The founding countries were Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Oman, Pakistan, the Philippines, Qatar, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Uzbekistan and Vietnam
- See: Anonymous (09 July 2018) AIIB to Transition to New Model For Project Approvals. Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Available from: https://www.aiib.org/en/news-events/news/2018/20180709_001.html [Accessed 23 August 2018].
- See: Hurley, J. (01 March 2018) AIIB Has Another Opportunity to Establish Best MDB Practice. Center for Global Development. Available from: www.cgdev.org/blog/aiib-has-another-opportunity-to-establish-best-mdb-practice [Accessed 23 August 2018].
- See: Panda, A. & Parameswaran, P. (12 March 2018) One Belt, One Road, One Hegemon? The Geopolitics of China’s OBOR Initiative. The Diplomat. Available from: https://thediplomat.com/2017/05/one-belt-one-road-one-hegemon-the-geopolitics-of-chinas-obor-initiative/ [Accessed 20.08.2018].White, H. (29 October 2014) AIIB: America’s Influence In the Balance. The Straits Times, Available from: https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/aiib-americas-influence-in-the-balance [Accessed 20.08.2018].
- See: Anonymous (10.06.2018) India refuses to endorse China’s BRI. The Times of India. Available from: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/india-refuses-to-endorse-chinas-bri/articleshow/64530284.cms [Accessed 23 August 2018].
- See: Panda, A. (19 March 2018) If India Won’t Put Up With the Belt and Road, Why Is It the Largest Recipient of AIIB Funds. The Diplomat. Available from: https://thediplomat.com/2018/03/if-india-wont-put-up-with-the-belt-and-road-why-is-it-the-largest-recipient-of-aiib-funds/ [Accessed 23.08.2018].
- The list of all projects can be found at: https://www.aiib.org/en/projects/approved/index.html.
- For good examples on BRI-projects, see recent controversy about the Chinese 99-year lease on a Sri-Lankan port and Malaysia: Bland, B. (24 June 2018) Malaysian backlash tests China’s Belt and Road ambitions. Financial Times. Available from: https://www.ft.com/content/056ae1ec-7634-11e8-b326-75a27d27ea5f [Accessed 21 August 2018].
Palma, S. (11 July 2018) Malaysia resets China ties over ‘lopsided’ deals. Financial Times. Available from: https://www.ft.com/content/91aaf04a-8343-11e8-96dd-fa565ec55929 [Accessed 21.08.2018]. Erickson, A. (21 August 2018) Malaysia cancels two massive Chinese projects, fearing they will bankrupt the country. The Washington Post. Available from: www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/malaysia-cancels-two-massive-chinese-projects-fearing-they-will-bankrupt-the-country/2018/08/21/2bd150e0-a515-11e8-b76b-d513a40042f6_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.99352eb9eb08 [Accessed 21 August 2018]. Lim, D. J. & Mukherjee, R. (20 January 2018) Does Debt Pay? China and the Politics of Investment in Sri Lanka. The Diplomat. Available from https://thediplomat.com/2018/01/does-debt-pay-china-and-the-politics-of-investment-in-sri-lanka/ [Accessed 21 August 2018].
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