Amid the growing rivalry between the US and China, aid has become an arena of global competition. US President Joe Biden and other G-7 leaders recently launched the Build Back Better World initiative to bring like-minded democracies together to fill the infrastructure gap in low- and middle-income countries. Build Back Better World intends to counter China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, which Chinese President Xi Jinping recently said would create “a new kind of international relationship” based on mutual benefit and quality development rather than “zero-sum games.” are.
These statements speak volumes about how the United States, its allies, and China are using foreign aid to advance national interests and make friends overseas. But how can these overtures be implemented in influence and partnership with foreign leaders and publics?
In June, AidData, a research laboratory at the Global Research Institute of the College of William & Mary, released the results of a survey of public, private, and civil society leaders from 141 countries who were asked to find out which overseas actors they have worked with and how they feel Assess their influence and willingness to help. The results, which we report on below, are based on responses from 6,807 executives who shared their views between June and September 2020, compared to an earlier AidData survey in 2017.
Respondents said that China is an indisputable force in shaping domestic politics in their countries; on our list of most influential development partners, it dwarfed all but one G-7 economy. But the interviewed heads of state and government disagreed on whether China’s influence on their countries was positive or negative overall. Ultimately, leaders take China into account when setting priorities, but even more often turn to intergovernmental actors or G-7 partners when implementing political agendas. China’s ability to reshape international norms, enlist support for alternative development models, or oust the power of the status quo is not a fait accompli.
China has consolidated its status as a global player in development aid.
In a speech to mark the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1, Xi highlighted development aid as essential for China to take its rightful place as a world power after a century of humiliation – the period of foreign occupation from the Opium War of 1840 to 1840 1949. This was not just empty rhetoric: Our survey results underscore that Beijing has redoubled its efforts to position itself as the preferred partner of leaders in low- and middle-income countries.
In line with its Belt and Road efforts, China has expanded its global presence in development aid in recent years. In 2020, it competed with G-7 economies such as Canada and France in both the percentage of respondents (15 percent) and the number of countries (113) that said they received its advice or assistance between 2016 and 2020. It lagged behind the United States, Japan, Britain, and Germany, each of which worked with 20 to 40 percent of executives.
Since 2017, China has increased its reach by another 52 countries, suggesting that this status quo could change slightly in the future.
Who are the top development aid influencers?
For the first time, China was among the top 10 most influential development partners, ranked eighth among respondents and has climbed 13 places since 2017. 76 percent of executives who said they had advice or support from Beijing rated it as influential in shaping their development priorities. China outperformed all G-7 countries with the exception of the US, which was in third place. Yet trustworthy multilateral organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank still rose to the top of the influence rankings.
What explains this rapid increase? Beijing has taken steps to reform and professionalize its development aid apparatus, notably by establishing the China International Development Cooperation Agency in 2018, which could have supported its performance.
However, the survey responses provide an alternate narrative. China’s influence appears to be closely linked to the power of its wallet: 36 percent of respondents attributed its influence to its economic or political importance on the global stage, and 28 percent pointed to the provision of certain programs or guidelines.
China receives mixed reviews from leaders in developing countries.
Executives can see external influence positively when it helps them advance political agendas or adopt a development model that is desirable for their country. However, they can see this influence negatively when it is forced to force concessions or work against their interests. The respondents generally rated the influence of their development partners positively, less so in China and France. Japan was rated the most positively as a G7 representative.
Adjusting the above influencing values to account for the positive or negative perceptions of heads of state and government, China slipped nine places to 17, lagging behind the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. These results could signal the limits of China’s influence if leaders realize its help requires something in return or have mixed feelings about the opacity of China’s foreign credit. Respondents showed a strong preference (+10 percentage points) for projects that required the terms of the grant agreements to be published over those that did not.
While respondents often cited the most influential development partners as the most helpful, this was not the case for China. Respondents ranked it 32nd most helpful development partner in implementing reforms, beating Canada, France and Italy. But Beijing was noticeably lacking in the club of the most helpful donors in all sectors and regions. Intergovernmental organizations such as the World Health Organization, the World Bank and the European Union, as well as the United States, have consistently received high marks for being the most helpful partners in almost every sector and geographic region.
Given that these respondents have the power to shape both their countries’ development path and their relationships with foreign powers, the survey results have some important lessons beyond development cooperation.
First, China gives China’s economic clout a seat at the table when countries set their political priorities, which could affect prevailing international norms. Second, China is unlikely to oust US influence in the short term, but central powers – such as Germany, Norway and Sweden – could water down their voices as competition increases. But if China is to successfully usher in a new form of international relations, as Xi predicts, it must overcome the perception that its influence is a double-edged sword.