Rachel Chang In Beijing

AIIB: China needs to win over naysayers

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Despite several big countries staying away, the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is poised to meet real infrastructure needs in Asia.

China's new international development bank was launched with a splash last month, but not the kind that Beijing had hoped for. 

Global media coverage of the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) focused on the countries that had stayed away from the initiative, not the 21 which had signed up for it.

In China, there was little fanfare and minimal state coverage of the launch, reflecting Beijing's disappointment at the slow start.

For over a year now, China has been campaigning for the new institution, which aims to set up a US$100 billion (S$128.6 billion) fund for lending to infrastructure projects in developing Asia.

But of the other 20 countries which signed up as AIIB's founding members, India was the only other big economy, and Singapore, Qatar and Kuwait the only other rich ones.

The bank's launch was overshadowed by media reports that countries like South Korea and Australia - big, developed economies that Beijing had hoped would be marquee lenders - stayed away due to lobbying by the United States.

Enormous potential

TOGETHER with Japan, the US backs the Asian Development Bank (ADB), another multilateral lender for development projects, and reportedly warned its allies that the AIIB will not uphold the same international standards in environmental and labour protection and anti-corruption safeguards.

The AIIB is a bid by Beijing to extend its influence in theAsian region, along with a myriad of other new multilateral bodies it has publicly supported in the last few years, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia.

It is also a bald attempt to rebalance international institutions away from the US, Europe and Japan and bring developing countries in Asia more into its ambit.

The AIIB has been welcomed by developing countries - its key beneficiaries - which speaks to a genuine and urgent need for such an organisation to step up development lending in Asia.

The ADB has estimated that developing countries in Asia need US$800 billion every year in infrastructure funding. Yet last year, it lent just US$21 billion, while the World Bank committed to another US$52.6 billion in financing measures in the year ended June 2013.

China's banks alone already lend more to developing countries than multilateral institutions do.

The Financial Times has estimated that the China Development Bank (CDB) and China Export-Import (Exim) Bank provided some US$110 billion in financing to developing countries in 2009 and 2010, compared to the World Bank's US$100 billion.

Their influence also extends beyond Asia. Between 2003 and 2011, the two Chinese banks provided some US$79 billion to Latin America alone, compared with US$57 billion from the World Bank and US$78 billion lent by the Inter-American Development Bank.

AIIB's huge economic proposition is shown not by the list of countries which stayed away but the countries which signed on.

"The Philippines and Vietnam joined, despite their ongoing tensions with China over disputed territory in the South China Sea," said S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) analyst Hoo Tiang Boon. "And the Philippines is a hardcore US ally."

South Korea and Australia, meanwhile, have not closed the door to joining the AIIB.

Beijing is hoping to entice them by making it clear that all countries - not just those in the signing ceremony last month - that adopt and ratify the bank's articles of agreement when they are completed by the end of next year will be considered founding members.

For developed countries like Singapore, Australia and South Korea, the AIIB can be an opportunity to invest foreign exchange reserves, grow financing sectors and position local firms for lucrative infrastructure projects in developing countries.

For Singapore in particular, it is a rare chance for a bigger seat at the global table.

As one of the few rich countries in the AIIB, it is likely to wield outsized influence in deciding how the bank will run.

Chinese standards

IN THE face of concerns that the AIIB will not uphold international standards in environmental, labour and anti-corruption protection, Singapore has the chance to shape it from within.

The size of the challenge should not be underestimated. China's bilateral lending programmes across Africa, Asia and Latin America are spotted with controversial projects.

Whether it is the hydroelectric dam in Honduras that would flood 42km of protected rainforest, or the resettlement and pollution problems in Myanmar from the building of the China-Myanmar oil and gas pipelines, Chinese projects in developing countries have often been seen as vessels for Chinese firms to extract economic benefits from hapless local populations.

Chinese developers also have a reputation for shipping in Chinese workers en masse, denying a boost to local employment.

Boston University international relations expert Kevin Gallagher noted that while CDB and China Exim Bank require environmental impact assessments before and after a project is built, they stipulate adoption of only local regulations and standards, not international ones.

This lowers the bar for Chinese firms, given that the countries they are operating in usually have weak laws and regulatory mechanisms. There is justifiable concern that the AIIB will be a multilateral extension of its main sponsor's relatively low standards.

Dr Gallagher also noted that the Chinese banks' environmental impact studies are not made public, and controversial projects were delayed only after outcries from activist groups.

The Chinese development banks also do not require developers to hold consultations with local populations or allow independent monitoring, which the World Bank does.

Still, three points can be made in response. The first is that, as East Asian Institute analyst Chen Gang argues, "the track record may not be all good, but China's loans and help in building infrastructure has transformed many countries. There are roads in just a few years where there was nothing for centuries".

The second is that overly high international standards can preclude any development at all. Restrictions mean ADB projects now take up to seven years to go from proposal to completion, reported the New York Times last month.

Said RSIS associate professor Li Mingjiang: "What's the point of high standards if a lot of these developing countries cannot meet (them) at all, which means they cannot do any infrastructure development at all?

"So the ideas of the US, Japan and Europe may not reflect the mainstream thinking in Asia."

The third argument is hypothetical but compelling: It is more likely that a multilateral body like the AIIB would lift China's standards than adopt its low base, especially if more developed countries join.

China will give itself the biggest voting share, but it is unlikely to insist on a majority weight.

Otherwise, why set up the AIIB instead of just expanding its already massive bilateral loans programme? Even if the AIIB does not immediately adopt international standards, Beijing's partners can lobby to move closer to global best practices. 

The US and Japan would rather China use its funds to shore up existing lending institutions than set up new ones. But as long as they refuse to give it a bigger say at those bodies, Beijing cannot be blamed for going its own way.

Given Washington's initial traction in stymying the new bank, the AIIB's efforts must now go to silencing its naysayers.

It is encouraging that China's leaders have focused on emphasising that the AIIB is open to all countries and wants to work with existing institutions. If it adopts adequate standards in environmental, labour and anti-corruption safeguards, Australia and South Korea have said there is no reason for them not to join.

Beijing should keep its eye on this goal and quietly work towards making the AIIB a boon for infrastructure development in Asia. After all, there is no better revenge than living well.

rchang@sph.com.sg