China’s unstoppable drive to a position of leadership in the expansion of globalization, has been fundamental. This route towards leadership, though, has not been easy, obvious or linear. It began as the natural byproduct of its explosive international commercial interconnectedness, after its access to World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. It followed, as expression of the country’s willingness to create a parallel institutional framework to the Western controlled multilaterals. It went on, as a mean of transforming the country in the center of an expanding supply chain and as the nucleus of the Asian economic integration process. And, finally, it has become expression of a torch passing, as the United States is forfeiting its willingness to lead the international economy. Let us try to follow each step of that route.
In 2011, the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, ECLAC, pointed out that South-South exchange, headed by China, was the main driving force of global trade growth. The volume of exports from developing countries had, indeed, gown by 17 percent in 2010 compared with 13 percent in developed countries.() The year before, Gordon Brown had written: “This weakening of the European, American and Japanese growth rate also reflects the fundamental shift taking place across the world in the location of production and the direction of trade…And with China leading the growth of South-South trade, globalization will no longer be dominated by trade between today’s developed countries”.()
Some good examples of the above were the trade expansions experienced between China and Latin America and China and Africa. The former had gone from US$ 8.3 billion in 1999 to US$ 233.7 billion in 2011, while the latter grew from US$ 10 billion in 2000 to US$ 114.81 billion in the period comprised between January and November 2010. At that point, China had already surpassed the United States as the largest trade partner with Africa, while its trade with Latin America was growing at nearly twice the level of that region with the United States. Trade between China and India had also gone from US$ 1.8 billion in 2001 to US$ 60 billion US$ in 2010.()
The increase in trade between China and the Arab world was so impressive, that experts were already talking about the reconstitution of the Silk Road: “The door between the Arab world and China, which was shut for centuries, is now open again”.() China’s exports to Arab countries worth US$ 6 billion in 2000 had reached US$ 60 billion in 2010. In the process, China had overtaken the United Kingdom in 2002, Germany in 2006 and the United States in 2008, as the larger exporter to this region.()
Edward Luce, gives us the proper context of what was happened: “From barely a statistical rounding error in 1978, with less than 1 per cent of global trade, China rose to become in 2013 the world’s leading trading nation with almost a quarter of its annual flows…Nothing on this scale or speed has been witnessed before in history”.()
Not surprisingly, at the time China accounted for 13.6 percent of the global GDP. Much surprisingly, though, its voting power within the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has remained as low as its percentual share, which is just 3.8 percent. Actually, China surpassed the US in GDP measured in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) in 2014.() Indeed, while the US accounted for US$ 17.4 trillion, China reached US$ 17.6 trillion. Nonetheless, China’s voting power at the IMF is, as mentioned, just 3.8 percent versus 17.9% for the United States.
China’s possibilities of increasing this utterly unfair ceiling, proved to be dim. Indeed, in two occasions the country tried to obtain a better positioning within the IMF, to no avail. One came a result of the talks for recapitalizing the International Monetary Fund, on occasion of the 2007-2008 financial crisis. The other, came during the Eurozone Crisis in 2011.
In the first instance, The US Congress rejected any reorganization of the IMF quotas that could translate into a larger voting power by emerging economies and very particularly by China. In the second instance, China offered to provide US$ 100 billion to help easing the Eurozone crisis. In return for which, it asked for the European support in obtaining more influence at the IMF. The European Union, though, spurned Beijing’s demands.
In relation to the second of these two cases, Benjamin Lim and Nick Edwards, Reuters’ Correspondent in Beijing, wrote: “The IMF route would have been the simplest diplomatically, especially after European Union (EU) leaders last month laid out a plan to leverage up the resources of its crisis-fighting fund through an IMF-backed investment vehicle. But the sources in Beijing said this option was abruptly closed to China when it became clear to EU politicians that any investment from China would be contingent on gaining a greater say in IMF decision-making and a more rapid path to inclusion of China’s Yuan in the IMF’s special drawing rights (SDR) currency unit. Increasing China’s say at the IMF would mean reducing EU representation and possibly diluting the influence of the United States, which enjoys veto-power status given its voting rights at the IMF”.()
So embedded is the notion that such institutions “belong” to developed economies, that even common sense proposals as the previous one are flatly rejected. In Josep Stiglitz words: “To maintain a cabal among developed countries, whereby the US appoints the World Bank president and Europe picks the International Monetary Fund’s head, seems particularly anachronistic and perplexing today, when the bank and the fund are turning to emerging-market countries as a source of funds”.()
Indeed, as Daniel W. Drezner clearly describes the situation: “But unless rising powers such as China and India are incorporated into this framework, the future of these international regimes will be uncomfortably uncertain (….) If China and India are not made to feel welcome inside existing international institutions, they might create new ones- leaving the United States on the outside looking in (….) Global institutions cease to be appropriate when the allocation of decision-making authority within them no longer corresponds to the distribution of power”()
Not surprisingly, in their Summit and the end of March 2012 the leaders of the BRICS member countries agreed to move towards creating a new development bank that would improve access to capital for developing nations, while agreeing as well to do deals with one another in their local currencies. China, as we shall see, will play a leading role in this matter.
As Radhika Deasi clearly explains, without fanfare the main emerging economies are bypassing the economic institutional architecture of the West: “The BRICS and emerging economies have already set in train a wider set of changes in the institutional architecture of the world order. Since Western powers maintain their grip on its major institutions, these rising powers have simply side-stepped them, setting up new institutions and using old minor ones in new ways. The result is a decentralised institutional structure that doesn’t look like a rival to Western-dominated centralised and worldwide institutions at first sight. But it is. For example, it bypasses US dollar-cantered world monetary and financial regime…Over this period, the International Monetary Fund’s influence fell and it had to compromise key policy prescriptions –pre-eminently on capital controls- as regional developments banks and arrangements between two or more developing economies to conduct trade in their own currencies undermined its monopoly…As the rising profile of the BRICS reshapes geopolitical economy and its institutional architecture, backing this or that candidate for president of an unreformed World Bank hardly matters”().
In 2014, China was instrumental in the creation of the BRICS’ New Development Bank, whose headquarters are in Shanghai. The bank is called to support public and private projects through loans, guarantees and other financial instruments. Moreover, the bank aims at cooperating with international organizations and other financial entities, in order to provide technical assistance to projects supported by the bank. The initial authorized capital of the bank was of US$ 100 billion, distributed in equal parts among its five members.
In 2015, the BRICS member countries established a Contingency Reserve Arrangement to provide protection against global liquidity pressures. This arrangement is seen as a competitor to the IMF. Within its capital of US$ 100.000 billion, the majority corresponds to China with US$ 39.95 billion.
But before being instrumental in these initiatives, China was already asserting an important international role through the China Development Bank. Created in 1994, as an engine called to power the government’s economic development, the Bank has played a leading role in the country’s international financial positioning. Besides being the second bond issuer in China after the Ministry of Finance, it has become an important international lender. Solely in Latin America, Chinese loan commitments between 2005 and 2013, reached US$ 130 billion. That represented more than what the World Bank, the Inter-American Bank and the World Bank combined, lent to the region during that period. The majority of those resources, dedicated to infrastructure and energy projects in commodity exporting nations, came from the China Development Bank.()
At the same time, the country has been a member of many multilateral institutions of emerging nations. According to Erik Berglof: “In fact, Chinese international engagement is now occurring on a scale and at a rate never seen before. China is a member of many multilateral institutions –including several regional players like the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB)- with which it is deepening its relationships, especially through co-investment in projects around the world. For example, China significantly ratcheted up its commitment to the AfDB last year through the $2 billion African Growing Together Fund”.()
In the global financial sphere, China has been very active as well. The country has moved in two directions. On the one hand, pushing forward the internationalization of its currency, the renminbi. On the other hand, trying to position Shanghai as a global financial center. In relation to the former, it has tried to tie as much as possible the renminbi to its wide international trade network, the largest in the world. As for the second, the following quote by Oliver Stuenkel says much: “…one of the Chinese government’s most ambitious and fascinating strategies, which symbolizes the extent to which China is willing to alter global structures: To turn Shanghai, a regional also-ran behind other geographically close cities like Hong Kong, into a global financial center capable of challenging New York and London, the world’s only truly global financial centers. According to China’s State Council, this should be achieved by 2020”.()
China also played an important role in the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), whose organizational charter was signed in June 2002, entering into force on 19 September, 2003. This is a multi-faceted organization, that beyond mutual economic support, covers also security and political support. SCO is integrated by 8 Eurasian member states that in addition to China include also India, Russia, Pakistan and several Central Asian states. This organization superseded the Shanghai Five Group which had been founded in 1996, also under the leadership of China.
Moreover, China was the driving force behind the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Silk Road Fund. The first is a multilateral development bank that aims at supporting the building of infrastructures in the Asia-Pacific region. The initiative gathered support from 37 regional and 20 non-regional members. Currently the bank has 61 member states, while another 23 are prospective members. That could take the bank to 84 members, which by all accounts is a very representative number. Moreover, the capital of the bank is of US$ 100 billion, which is half of that of the Word Bank. China pledged US$ 50 billion to the AIIB special fund, which will help low-income countries in developing infrastructure projects.
AIIB was proposed by China in 2013 and its launching initiative took place in Beijing in October 2014. As from the beginning, the United States opposed the idea and tried to avoid the participation of its main European and Asian allies. The simple fact that China could attain such a degree of financial might in the fastest growing region of the planet, was unacceptable to Washington. The boycott, however, fell together with the first domino piece: The United Kingdom. As soon as London decided to be founding member of AIIB, before the foreclosure of the initial subscription period on March 31, 2015, the rest of the of the domino row followed: Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, etc. Washington pressure proved to be insufficient against the opportunities herein offered by China’s initiative.
The Silk Road Fund, differently from AIIB is not a multilateral financial institution, but a Chinese state owned investment Fund. Its aim is to foster increased investments in the countries along the One Belt One Road. The Chinese government pledged US$ 40 billion for the creation of this investment fund, which as established on December 29, 2014. Its investments will not only include Asia, but also Europe. The Silk Road Fund will complement AIIB in relation to infrastructure developments along the One Belt, One Road course. Needless to say, that these initiatives tend to close the Washington based financial institutions participation in such gigantic project.
The One Belt, One Road Initiative itself, is a development strategy proposed by the Chinese government that focuses on connectivity and cooperation between Asian, African and European countries. It was unveiled by President Xi Jinping in September and October of 2013. This mega infrastructure development plan covers more than 65 countries in Asia, Africa and Asia, and bears a price tag estimated at a trillion dollars.
Comprising a land route (“Silk Road Economic Belt”) and a maritime route (“Maritime Silk Road”), it aims at building highways, railways, pipelines, ports and industrial ports. The land route will go from Lianyungang in China to Rotterdam in the Netherlands, while the maritime one will depart from Quanzhou in China and end in Venice, Italy.
Referring to China’s reasons behind the One Belt, One Road Initiative, Hugh White expresses: “China wants to consolidate its position at the centre of the global supply and manufacturing networks which will be the key to the global economy over the coming decades. Beijing understands that as China’s economy matures and its income levels rise, the lower-wage industries which have fueled China’s growth so far will migrate to less-developed countries where labour costs are lower. China’s economic planners want to fight that trend, but turn it to China’s advantage by building itself an inexpugnable place at the centre of the expanding supply-chain web which will result from it”.()
The One Belt, One Road project encompasses 65 percent of the world’s population, about one third of the world’s gross domestic product and about a quarter of the world’s trade.() Making this bold vision a reality will require an extraordinary alignment of financial resources, political commitment, technical skills and international cooperation. It is by no means an easy task. However, the benefits that it may bring to so many are so significant, that numerous countries have shown their interest in this project.
Not surprisingly 110 countries were represented, some of them at the highest level, at the mid-May 2017 Beijing meeting to discuss the initiative. With commodities showing their lowest prices in more than a decade, the incentive to build an intercontinental web of infrastructure and trade links has been greatly enhanced. The China Development Bank alone has earmarked US$890 billion for some 900 projects herein involved.()
Anabel Gonzalez, from the World Economic Forum, provides an overly ambitious picture of the Belt and Road initiative and of its expansive possibilities: “It is the most ambitious initiative to improve regional economic integration and connectivity on a transcontinental scale: involving ‘hard’ infrastructure along six overland corridors, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road; ‘soft’ infrastructure, such as the financial system, to enhance efficiency and facilitate economic flows; and policy reforms and institution-building to promote trade and foreign direct investment among the 70 or o BRI countries. There is talk now of expanding it to Latin America or to shipping routes across the Artic, dubbed the ‘Polar Silk Road’”.()
Beijing has also been playing a major role in the proposed free trade agreement known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). This would include the ten member states of ASEAN (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam), and the six states with which ASEAN has existing free trade agreements: Australia, China, India Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.
Formal negotiations for RCEP began in November 2012 and it is expected that it will be formally launch in Singapore, in November 2018. RCEP has been seen, and consequently Beijing’s particular interest in it, as an alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, (TPP) which excluded China. Once in force, RCEP will be open to new members. As a conventional free trade agreement, it will have a lax structure when compared TPP.
RCEP member states will account for a population of 3.4 billion people and a combined GDP of US$ 49.5 trillion, which is approximately tantamount to 39 percent of the world’s GDP. It will become the largest trading bloc in the planet and its importance will keep increasing in direct relation to the GDP increase of its member states.
At the 2014 APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting, held in Beijing, President Xi Jinping urged the group economies to approve a roadmap for achieving a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP). As a result, a so called Beijing Roadmap was adopted in order to push forward the FTAAP process. A collective strategic study of this plan was subsequently approved at the 2016 APEC summit in Lima, Peru. In Lima, President Xi delivered a keynote speech in which he urged the building of the FTAAP, as protectionism had dented global trade and economic integration. Moreover, he urged APEC members to stay committed to taking economic globalization forward and to transform the Asia-Pacific region in a growth engine within an “innovative, invigorated, interconnected and inclusive world economy”.()
But beyond China’s leadership, we find the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This was, precisely, the United States answer to Chinese lead. Indeed, President Obama’s Administration wanted to confront China’s rise by given shape to an Asia-Pacific security and prosperity area for the 21st century. Such project was supported by two broad aims.
The first was to seek a sustainable security, by counterbalancing China’s emergence through the gathering together of the United States and its traditional allies in the region. The second objective was to promote what Obama called “our shared prosperity”, essentially through an enlarged trans-Pacific trade and economic liberalization agreement: The Trans-Pacific Partnership. Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian University of Canberra talked of an Obama containment doctrine to China, describing it as “America’s most ambitious new strategic doctrine since Truman committed America to contain the Soviet Union”. ()
The Trans-Pacific Partnership went in the opposite direction to the Asia-Pacific economic strategy purposefully followed by China for many years. East Asian countries were thus placed, amid a difficult balance act that had China at one side and the United States on the other. According to Kwan Weng Kin: “Security analyst Yukio Okamoto warned…‘The TPP raises the question of whether the region should aim for a US-style free trade area or to co-exist with China’”. ()
President Trump’s first act in office, though, was to retire his country from the TPP. Hence, Obama’s “share prosperity” approach suddenly disappeared from the equation, which henceforward had just the security leg to counterbalance China’s emergence. For East Asian countries the decision was thus changed to approach China’s economic opportunities, at the expense of a certain degree of “Finlandization”, or to choose American security at the expense of China’s economic benefits.
TPP was to move forward towards completion with its 11 remaining members. But instead of being a counterbalance to China, it would become an economic counterbalance to President Trump’s protectionism. According to Ernesto Londoño and Motoko Rich: “A trade act originally conceived by the United States to counter China’s growing economic might in Asia now has a new target: President Trump’s embrace of protectionism. A group of 11 nations –including major United States allies like Japan, Canada and Australia- signed a broad trade deal on Thursday in Chile’s capital, Santiago, that challenges Mr. Trump’s view of trade as a zero-sum game filled with winners and losers. Covering 500 million people on either side of the Pacific Ocean, the pact represents a new vision of global trade as the United States imposes steel and aluminum tariffs on even some of its closest friends”.()
As a Working Paper by the Peterson Institute for International Economics stated, the absence of the United States in the TPP presented both costs and benefits. Among the costs was the obvious loss of access to the U.S. domestic market, which had been an important incentive for many of the would be members (particularly Vietnam). Among the benefits, though, were not only less rigorous provisions (as it is the case of the controversial eight-year data exclusivity protection for biologic drugs, advocated by the U.S.), but also even stronger incentives for others to join. The fact is, that Indonesia, South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and, even China, have all expressed interest in membership following the conclusion of the negotiations.()
So, the 11 remaining countries of both shores of the Pacific Basin, representing a combined GDP of US$ 13.7 trillion and a join population of 500 hundred million people, were able to eliminate more than 98 percent of tariffs between them, in an agreement finally signed in March 2018. Rebranded as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the agreement was signed the same day in which President Trump signed steel and aluminum tariffs.
The table is now serve for China to take advantage of the TPP. Again in Londoño and Rich words: “When Obama was advocating the deal, he said that ‘America should call the shots’ instead of China. Now, signatories are opening the door for China to join. Heraldo Muñoz, Chile’s foreign minister, told reporters on Thursday afternoon that Chinese officials have been weighing the possibility of signing on. ‘This will be open to anyone who accepts its components’ Mr. Muñoz said. ‘It’s not an agreement against anyone. It’s in favor of open trade’”.()
It is possible that in the end China might not be interested in joining TPP, a deep and comprehensive “new generation” trade agreement that covers issues that transcend the kind of traditional free trade agreements preferred by Beijing. However, TPP is no longer a threat for China, nor does it present an adversarial approach to its leadership in the region. Much to the contrary, TPP signatories have become China’s natural allies in counterbalancing Trump’s protectionism. Londoño and Rich, quote Professor Jeffrey Wilson, head of the U.S.-Asia Center at the University of Western Australia: “If you’re a trade policy maker in Asia, your number one fear is that Trump is going to take a swing on you…The U.S. is really delivering the region to China at the moment”.()
But more than simply delivering Asia or the Pacific Basin, Trump has been delivering to China the leadership on globalization. According to Richard Hass: “When great powers fade, as they inevitably must, it’s normally for one or two reasons. Some powers exhaust themselves trough overreach abroad, underinvestment at home, or a mixture of the two. This was the case o the Soviet Union. Other powers lose their privileged position with the emergence of a new, stronger powers. This describes what happened with France and Great Britain in the case of Germany’s emergence after World War I and, more benignly, with the European powers and the rise of the United States during and after World War II. To some extent America is facing version of this- amid what Farid Zakaria has dubbed ‘thee rise of the rest- with China’s ascendance the most significant development. But the United States has now introduced a third means by which a major power forfeits international advantage. It is abdication, the voluntary relinquishing of power and responsibility. It is brought about more by choice than by circumstances either at home or abroad (…) Abdication is as unwarranted as it is unwise. It is a basic fact of living in a global world that no country can insulate itself from much of what happens elsewhere. A foreign policy based on sovereignty alone will not provide security in a global, interconnected world”.()
Richard Hass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, later coined this abdication process as the Withdrawal Doctrine. President Xi Jinping has taken advantage of every possible opportunity to assert his country’s willingness to take the torch from a withdrawing United States. At the Da Nang Asia-Pacific Cooperation Forum in November 2017, he told the assembly: “We should uphold multilateralism, pursue shared growth through consultation and collaboration, forge closer partnerships, and build a community with a shared future for mankind”.()
A month before, at the 19th Communist Party Congress in October 2017, Mr. Xi had not only proclaimed that “China will take the lead in international cooperation on climate change” but added that “this is an era that will see China move closer to the centre of the world and make more contributions to humankind”.() In January of the same year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Xi stated: “It is true that economic globalization has created new problems. But this is no justification to write off economic globalization altogether. Rather we should adapt and guide globalization, cushion its negative impact, and deliver its benefits to all countries and all nations (…) The global economy is the big ocean you cannot escape from…China has learned how to swim (…) We should commit ourselves to growing an open global economy (…) World history shows that the road of human civilization has never been a smooth one and that mankind has made progress by surmounting difficulty…When encountering difficulty we should not complain, blame others, or run away from responsibilities. Instead we should join hands and se to the challenge. History is made by the brave”. ()
Also in June of 2017, China and the European Union prepared a joint statement to uphold the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, as the U.S. pulled out from its commitment to it. On that occasion, The Guardian wrote: “The expected announcement in Brussels illustrates China’s determination to take a leadership role in the world”. ()
As Anthony J. Blinken reluctantly recognizes: “All of this positions China to become, in Mr. Xi’s words, ‘a new choice for other countries’ and the principal arbiter of something long associated with the United States: the international order. China has a profound stake in that order and a globalized world (…) I’d never bet against the United States, but if the Trump-led retreat into nationalism, protectionism, unilateralism and xenophobia continues, China’s model could carry the day”.()
What a decade ago would have been unimaginable, the generalized acceptance of China as the leader of the globalized economy, has become reality. In the process, the parallel globalization developed by China to overcome the constrains imposed upon its emergence by Western powers, has moved into the center stage. The window of opportunity opened by the U.S. sudden withdrawal, found China ready. As a good surfer, Beijing had the surfboard prepared when the big wave appeared. This, of course, would have not been possible if globalization had not evolved from its initial market economy orientation into a more plural and multicultural content.
Alfredo Toro Hardy is a Venezuelan author, scholar and retired diplomat.
Former Venezuelan Ambassador to the U.S., U.K., Spain, Brazil, Chile, Ireland and Singapore. Author or coauthor of 33 books in and numerous academic articles on international affairs. He has directed several Venezuelan academic institutions on international affairs and taught in universities from Venezuela, the United States, Brazil and Spain.
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