When Xi Jinping, China’s leader, delivered an “important speech” at the UN in September 2021, it appeared to be little more than a list of feelgood clichés. He said that the world needed “harmony between man and nature” and added that economic development should bring “benefits for all”.
So short on specifics was his address that the international media mostly ignored it. Through subsequent elaborations, however, that speech has taken on a crucial significance. This is because Xi used it to propose a new scheme called the Global Development Initiative, which is now gaining recognition as a foundation stone in China’s blueprint for an alternative world order to challenge that of the US-led west.
Ostensibly, the GDI is a Chinese-led multilateral programme to promote development, alleviate poverty and improve health in the developing world. But along with two follow-up initiatives also announced by Xi — the Global Security Initiative and the Global Civilisation Initiative — it represents China’s boldest move yet to enlist the support of the “global south” to amplify Beijing’s voice on the world stage and build up China’s profile in the UN, Chinese officials and commentators say.
“[Xi’s initiatives] show China’s clearest intention yet to update the rules of global governance that were written by the collective west in the aftermath of world war two,” says Yu Jie, senior research fellow at Chatham House, a think-tank in London.
“The initiatives illuminate Beijing’s moves to carve out its own space in international affairs because it is firmly convinced that China’s relations with the collective west will remain turbulent for a decade to come,” she adds.
The rise of the middle powers
This is the second in a series on how the stand-off between America and China has ushered in a new era of opportunity for countries across the world
Part 1: The à la carte world: our new geopolitical order
Part 2: China’s blueprint for an alternative world order
Part 3 on Wednesday: UAE and Saudi Arabia — the Gulf powerhouses
Part 4 on Thursday: The fight to dethrone the dollar as the world’s currency
The key to China’s blueprint is to steadily institutionalise its leadership over the developing world by creating, expanding and funding a raft of China-led groupings of countries, according to Chinese officials and commentators. They add that the aims of this strategy are largely two-fold: to ensure that a broad swath of the world remains open to Chinese trade and investment and to use the voting power of developing countries at the UN and in other forums to project Chinese power and values.
The crucial context to this strategy is that by seeking increased leadership over the global south, China is throwing in its lot with the largest and fastest-growing part of the world. The 152 countries classified as developing at the UN vastly outstrip their developed counterparts on yardsticks such as population size and population growth, GDP growth rates over the past two decades and overall contribution to global GDP growth as measured by purchasing power parity.
For the first time ever, China exported more in the early part of this year to the developing world — as represented by the countries that make up the Belt and Road Initiative — than it exported to the US, EU and Japan combined (see chart), according to data collected by Dongwu Securities, a Chinese brokerage.
“China will always be a member of the family of developing countries,” Xi told a forum in 2021. “We will continue to do our utmost in raising the representation and voice of developing nations in the global governance system.”
The list of international institutions in which Beijing hopes to magnify its influence and, by extension, that of the developing world is getting longer. It includes the UN, the World Trade Organization, the G20 and others, Chinese officials say. In addition, Beijing also intends to expand the membership and raise the profile of several groupings in which it already plays a leading role, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Brics group and others.
“We should not take the Chinese Communist party’s endeavours to establish a new world order lightly,” says Xu Chenggang, senior research scholar at Stanford University’s Center on China’s Economy and Institutions.
“Developing countries with authoritarian regimes, particularly those in conflict with the US and other democracies, are finding that China’s new order is beneficial to their domestic authoritarian rule and their foreign policy,” he adds.
Multilateralism with Chinese characteristics
The UN — with its 15 specialised agencies that exercise global governance in several areas such as finance, telecoms, health and hunger alleviation — lies at the “very centre” of China’s worldview and its plans to boost its influence, says one senior Chinese official, who declined to be identified.
It is also a focus of Beijing’s attempt to gain influence through Xi’s three initiatives. The most important move so far has come in the form of a new UN forum that China founded in 2020. Called the “Group of Friends of the Global Development Initiative”, it has about 70 member countries, has held its first ministerial meeting and has won the endorsement of UN secretary- general António Guterres, according to official Chinese documents.
The full list of member countries in the group is confidential, a UN spokesperson and Chinese officials say. However, a list compiled by the Financial Times of 20 countries believed to be members, shows that the group includes many of China’s biggest debtors under the BRI. Through the initiative, Chinese financial institutions have lent nearly $1tn mainly for infrastructure projects in the developing world since 2013.
A study by AidData, a US-based research lab, shows that the 20 countries on the list have displayed impressive loyalty to China in the form of votes at the UN. Between 2013 and 2020, each of them have voted with China on at least 75 per cent of occasions in the UN General Assembly (see chart), the main policymaking body which issues recommendations on global crises, manages internal UN appointments and oversees the UN’s budget.
In the case of Cambodia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe — all of which owe hefty debts to China — their voting alignment with China in the assembly registered at 80 per cent or above, according to the research.
The correlation between increased lending and greater voting fealty was consistent across the sample. “When countries vote with China in the UN General Assembly, they are richly rewarded,” says Bradley Parks, executive director of AidData. “Beijing is dusting off an old playbook and using its largesse to purchase foreign policy favours.
“On average, a 10 per cent increase in voting alignment with China in the UN General Assembly yields a 276 per cent increase in aid and credit from Beijing,” he adds, quoting research on voting patterns from a new book by Axel Dreher and colleagues called Banking on Beijing.
These correlations do not prove that countries vote with China purely because of the debts they owe. Several other factors may also be in play such as political allegiances, trade and investment ties and agendas common to developing countries.
Nevertheless, such loyalty represents a resource that China can draw on in future UN votes, says Courtney Fung, a UN expert at the Lowy Institute, a think-tank based in Australia.
“China can harness these relationships in UN votes or debates to support and underline just how well-accepted China’s positions are within the UN system,” Fung says.
One focus of China’s UN strategy is lobbying. If Beijing can secure the allegiance of the majority of 152 developing countries — out of 193 UN member states — it stands to prevail and correspondingly amplify its voice in world affairs, Chinese officials say.
Recent general assembly resolutions have covered a gamut of issues, including financing for peacebuilding, pandemic prevention and a “new partnership” for Africa’s development.
But, as China’s recent experience shows, it is not only in the broadest forums such as general assembly where the votes of developing countries loyal to China have turned out to be crucial.
In October last year, the UN Human Rights Council voted down a western-led motion to hold a debate on China’s human rights abuses after a cohort of developing countries backed Beijing. The council has 47 members, of whom 19 voted against the motion, 17 for and 11 abstained.
It was only the second time in the council’s 16-year history that a motion had been rejected. But what made the defeat even more extraordinary was that it came just weeks after a finding by the UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights that “serious human rights violations” had been committed by Beijing against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, a region in north-west China.
Following that victory, China then enlisted 66 countries — most of them recipients of Chinese lending under the BRI — to support a statement at the UN praising its human rights record. Its signatories outnumbered the 50 mostly western countries that endorsed a rival statement which condemned China.
Beyond such one-off battles, China is starting to use the “Group of Friends of the Global Development Initiative” to promote its own definitions of key concepts in an effort to undercut those used by the US-led west. One of these is “true multilateralism”, which it defines as equal status for all countries.
This vision is distinct from what China sees as the abuses of the US-led world order, which it characterises as “bloc politics under the disguise of multilateralism” or attempts to impose the “rules made by a few countries” under the pretext of multilateralism, according to an official Chinese document.
“The whole idea of [China’s definition of] multilateralism is to oppose what Beijing sees as American hegemony,” says Collin Koh, senior fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Another key Chinese strategy is to present itself as a global peacemaker, partly to counter the reputational damage it suffered when its strategic partner, Russia, invaded Ukraine last year. Crucial to this ambition is the Global Security Initiative (GSI), which was proposed last year by Xi and is designed as a China-led multilateral forum.
Its aim is to wrest influence away from the US on global security issues while elevating its own role, officials say. Part of the strategy to achieve this is to call for a “bigger UN role in security affairs” while expanding Beijing’s own role within the UN peacekeeping hierarchy.
This focus on the UN echoes that of the GDI and highlights a crucial feature of Xi’s three initiatives: rather than seeking to create a whole new world order, Beijing’s aim is to repurpose the UN’s authority to more squarely serve China.
China is the second largest contributor — after the US — to the UN’s peacekeeping budget and it supplies more UN peacekeeping troops than the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council combined, according to Courtney Fung’s research. Over a dozen Chinese officers have had top military posts in the UN’s Department of Peace Operations, a foundation stone in the UN architecture, Fung adds.
Although the DPO has been led by French officials since 1997, Beijing hopes that in time one of its officials will be chosen either to lead the DPO or one of its three main offices, Chinese officials say.
For Beijing, the prestige it accords UN peacekeeping is part of a bigger push to align itself with the cause of peace. In March, it brokered a landmark deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, ending a seven-year rift. In May, Xi proposed a four-point plan aimed at working towards peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Officials from Beijing also attended a forum held this month in Saudi Arabia on resolving the conflict in Ukraine. European officials told the FT that China’s participation had been “constructive” and said that Beijing had signalled its willingness to attend further talks.
In spite of its official adherence to “true multilateralism” — the concept of equal status for all states — China has a complex position on reforming the UN. It relishes its position as one of the five permanent members — along with the US, UK, France and Russia — of the UN Security Council “P5”, which allows it to veto resolutions.
It is understood to be open to the idea of expanding the permanent membership from the current five. But it privately opposes the inclusion of Japan and India, both of which are strategic rivals to China, according to diplomats, who declined to be identified. This opposition in effect stymies a proposal to accept the “G4” — Germany, Brazil, India and Japan — as permanent members.
To Collin Koh, this stance lays bare the hollowness of China’s claim to want to bring true multilateralism to the UN decision-making process. “I don’t think China is trying . . . to devolve major decision-making authority from the P5,” Koh says. “But of course this would not stop Beijing from continuing to put itself up as the unwavering, faithful leading advocate of the global south.”
Beyond the UN, China has a raft of plans to boost the participation of developing countries in international forums and, in so doing, to bolster its own standing.
In the G20, which Beijing treats as a key forum to engage with the west, China became the first country last year to push for membership for the African Union, which comprises 55 member states from the continent. If membership is granted at a summit scheduled for September in New Delhi, the G20’s membership will expand to 21 and developing world representation will grow close to parity with that of the developed world.
China is also hoping to expand the Brics group beyond its current members — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — so that it becomes a counterweight to the G7, a group of developed powers. More than 20 countries have submitted applications to join the grouping at a summit this week in South Africa, diplomats said.
Another multilateral organisation in the throes of expansion is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a security grouping founded by China that has nine countries as full members and is due to absorb Belarus as its tenth. Four of the members — China, Russia, India and Pakistan — are nuclear powers and Moscow sees the group “as the core of a China- and Russian-led anti-western bloc,” according to a paper from the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.
Nevertheless, the SCO’s membership also betrays a common flaw with Chinese multilateralism. The opaque parameters it uses to launch its initiatives and institutions allows countries to look past the rivalries they have with others in the group. But it does nothing to heal the rifts.
Thus the SCO embraces both Pakistan and India, which acknowledge their mutually hostile ties. India’s relationship with China itself is also tense on several fronts.
“The vague language of most of the initiatives made it easy for countries to pay lip service to them. China could then point to this rhetorical support as evidence that a large number of countries backed its world view,” says Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, a think-tank in Washington.
“However, these countries would only be willing to accommodate China’s demands up to a certain point. When push came to shove, they would follow their own interests,” she adds.
Additional reporting by Joseph Leahy in Beijing