Unboxing China’s Global Development Initiative

Somewhat overshadowed by the continued focus on China’s development efforts in the Pacific, last month Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted a high-level virtual dialogue on global development on the sidelines of the BRICS summit. The dialogue was notable not only because of its long list of 32 deliverables – some of which have significant ramifications outside the development sphere – but also because it formally reframed China’s development efforts under the banner of its new “Global Initiative for Development”.

Xi first introduced the GDI in a virtual address to the United Nations General Assembly in September last year as a way to support economic and social development around the world in response to the setbacks caused by Covid-19. . The GDI, according to Xi, would be a new effort to help accelerate the momentum of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and “steer global development towards a new stage of balanced, coordinated and inclusive growth”. Priority areas for the GDI would include “poverty reduction, food security, Covid-19 and vaccines, financing for development, climate change and green development, industrialization, digital economy and connectivity “.

China’s GDI proposal is certainly timely. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused huge development setbacks around the world, wiping out decades of progress.

Despite the ambiguity over what the GDI will actually entail, more than 100 countries and international organizations have since expressed their support for the initiative, while 50 countries have joined the Group of Friends of the Global Development Initiative set up by China in January. The GDI has been welcomed by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and various UN agencies, while references to the GDI increasingly appear in joint statements between China and other countries.

China’s GDI proposal is certainly timely. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused huge development setbacks around the world, wiping out decades of progress. According to the World Bank and the World Health Organization, the number of people living in extreme poverty around the world increased in 2020 for the first time in 20 years. This comes as the global economy heads into an era of stagflation and slowdown that will make reversing these trends all the more difficult. There must certainly be a lot more momentum for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals if they have any chance of being achieved by 2030 – indeed, even with more momentum there is a very real risk that ‘they are not achieved, like the Millennium Development Goals before them.

China has long emphasized the collective rights of the state over the rights of the individual in pursuit of the “greater good”. Chinese military police patrol Tiananmen Square, Beijing. (Zhang Linxuan/Unsplash)

Any effort to eradicate extreme poverty and advance sustainable development should be positive for the global development agenda. However, China’s GDI also represents a number of efforts to reshape broader global rules and governance in line with Beijing’s interests. This raises a number of red flags that will need to be watched closely as the initiative unfolds.

For example, the GDI includes ambiguous but problematic language that has significant implications for human rights around the world. The GDI defines ‘development’ as the ‘master key’ to ‘all problems’ and positions development as a prerequisite for the enjoyment of human rights. If this sounds familiar, it’s because China has long insisted on the right to prioritize economic development over respecting and defending other human rights. This approach is problematic because it goes directly against the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It suggests that human rights are voluntary, rather than an international legal obligation, and erodes the existing international human rights regime by creating a written precedent for states to fail to respect or uphold human rights. until they reach a deliberately vague (and conveniently elusive, in the case of China) agreement. ) definition of “developed”.

Xi’s connection between the GDI and China’s new Global Security Initiative is concerning, inextricably tying development efforts to Beijing’s security interests.

Regarding, the GDI also uses a lot of language around the “collective” and the “greater good”. Again, the emphasis on “collective” rights will sound familiar as a common refrain of authoritarianism. China has long emphasized the concept of the collective rights of the state over the rights of the individual in pursuit of the “greater good”. This provides a direct counterpoint to the concept of universal and inalienable human rights and helps advance China’s broader efforts to create an alternative human rights framework that privileges the nation-state over the state. individual and undermines human rights for all.

The lexicon and emphasis may seem minor, but this language is important – it is particularly important in the international system where, over time, it has the capacity to create or degrade international law and norms and to create a precedent for other international agreements and treaties.

Language aside, other red flags are evident. Xi’s connection between the GDI and China’s new Global Security Initiative is concerning, inextricably tying development efforts to Beijing’s security interests. Despite all of GDI’s references to the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, it’s also unclear how GDI is actually advancing existing SDGs. There is also the risk that the GDI will choose which aspects of the SDGs it advances in line with Beijing’s interests, at the expense of the established and internationally agreed principles of the global development agenda. The GDI also emphasizes connectivity and data, which will have implications for these issues in broader global discussions.

It is still early for the GDI. But beyond the “development” focus, it seems clear that the GDI is China’s latest attempt to reshape broader global rules and governance in its favor, with significant implications for human rights. the man. The GDI has so far received little public attention in the West or among the development community. Close monitoring is warranted as China’s latest idea unfolds.

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