October 13, 2022

Should development cooperation be the frontier for re-engagement with China?

At the Lab’s Situation Room in May this year, we interrogated the Australian and U.S. aid response to the People’s Republic of China influence in the region. One attendee forecast that development cooperation may be safe and solid grounds for re-engaging the PRC. Good natured debate erupted, so we decided to take it to the experts on this week’s Intel.

Richard Moore
Strategic Adviser, Development Intelligence Lab

I'm not a China hawk, but it'd be mad for the 'peace, love and understanding' end of foreign policy to cuddle the panda. 'Australia should fix up the problems in Chinese infrastructure', I heard recently. WTF! Like little elves at night, we should invisibly improve what the PRC does so that they can get more credit?

Let's be clear. Xi's '14 demands' positions China as a strategic competitor. His development model takes countries down a dead-end road. Yes, China has lifted more people out of poverty than ever before in world history, RESPECT. But that wasn't Mao, with 30 million famine deaths on his hands and it wasn't Xi, with his heavy-handed, re-centralising, surveillance state.  

China got half-way rich because Deng Xiaoping let farmers farm. He let prices send signals. Let people keep the gains they made. Of course, Deng also sent the tanks into Tiananmen Square. That's often forgotten in the West, but not by people in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet or Taiwan.  

There's a U.S.-China accommodation that can and should be reached; there's lessons we can draw from both systems, but let's read the record right. We've seen astonishing poverty reduction in the last 30 years – not coincidently since the end of the anti-development, Soviet state. We know what works – a balanced, open, mixed-market economy, with capable states and independent institutions, subject to the sovereignty of citizens and communities. Hard to get, and harder still to hold.

Xi's development model – like Trump's – is a disaster in waiting. Don't give it oxygen.

Richard features prominently in Australian development reform debate. He’s been with the Lab since the start and he is a relentless source of ideas. Richard’s knowledge of the Australian development program and Southeast Asia is unparalleled. At the Lab, we learn a lot from Richard’s experience, and love his quick wit, ambition and pragmatism.

Anthea Mulakala
Senior Director for International Development Cooperation, The Asia Foundation

If countries centre development cooperation around achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and delivering Global Public Goods, then yes, there is scope for engagement and collaboration. For example, China and Australia both agree that climate change is a priority issue for Pacific Island nations. Therefore, it’s feasible that both could agree to supporting climate action roadmaps of partner countries with funding or complementary inputs. If the Pacific is too hot politically, they could pursue shared priorities in a less contested region. Such complementarity already exists in areas such as health, agriculture, disaster risk management.

Additionally both Australia and China are committed to multilateralism and participate in a number of common institutions. While this has also become a contested space, some institutions, such as the G20 with its upcoming succession of southern-led leadership (Indonesia, India, Brazil, South Africa), provides an opportunity to create and sustain shared space around a development agenda.  

However, if development cooperation is deployed as a tool for advancing foreign policy and geostrategic interests, then the starting point is competitive, the platforms will be used to undermine the other country’s interests and intentions, and partner countries will have little faith in the sincerity and sustainability of either’s commitments.

The challenge of re-engaging when there is so much suspicion, distrust, and social and traditional media-fired antipathy towards the other, is that any shared values and priorities would take a backseat to the contested ones. Shared space in development cooperation exists but is shrinking fast. Embracing it will require deliberate efforts by both countries to leave the contest at the door and renew their focus on development.

Based in Malaysia, Anthea has been a consistently constructive voice on all matters of Asian-led development for The Asia Foundation since 2007. Smart, savvy and fair, Anthea is one of a number of Asia Foundation colleagues who has worked with the Lab since our inception.

Daniel Runde
Senior Vice President and Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Short answer, no. 

There have been multiple attempts to engage with China and they have shown their hand by choosing to engage only when they want to. China has deliberately started parallel institutions, and not joined the Development Assistance Committee nor the Paris Club (for debt restructurings). Rather than re-engage with China, the U.S. should be engaging more frequently with like-minded partners in the Indo-Pacific – Australia, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, and Taiwan. 

But the greatest challenge to this engagement with like-minded countries, private enterprise, aid agencies, and development finance institutions is without a doubt finding an alternative to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) controlled digital infrastructure, such as Huawei, ZTE and Alipay. We don’t want the digital rails of the future to be controlled by the CCP and we need to enable an attractive alternative. 

Moral of the story? Development cooperation won’t be a vector for re-engagement with China, rather it is and will be, an area of competition. As for Official Development Assistance, its role should be to accelerate trade capacity and create new trade ties for nations away from the CCP. China will cooperate when it aligns with their interests, we shouldn’t chase them. After all, it is better to push on open doors and cooperate with more like-minded countries.

Dan is an absolute force of nature. He is a CSIS Senior Vice President and heads up the Project on Prosperity and Development. As a republican, Dan plays a key role flying the flag on aid and development issues in Washington D.C. and has a long-time interest in greater U.S. engagement with Australia and the Pacific.

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