At June’s G7 meeting, US President Biden urged fellow leaders to support an organized response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), proposing to offer developing nations billions in financing as an alternative to Beijing. At the heart of this extraordinary strategy is the assumption that China has stolen the initiative from the traditional powers in engaging with the world’s developing countries.
But is it really as dire as all that? On the contrary: according to AidData's survey of leaders in developing countries, the US still has a comfortable lead over China across three important measures: footprint, influence and helpfulness. The researchers also found that G7 nations Germany, the UK, and Japan all have greater reach than China; the US is more influential than China; and 31 donors are seen as more helpful than China, including Japan and Taiwan.
“The growing prominence of China as an influential force in development cooperation is undeniable but not inevitable,” said Samantha Custer, Director of AidData’s Policy Analysis Unit and a co-author of the new report, Listening to Leaders 2021: A Report Card for Development Partners in an Era of Contested Cooperation. It is based on survey responses from nearly 7,000 leaders in 141 developing countries and semi-autonomous territories.
“We find China to be the eighth most influential development partner overall, with a formidable footprint in over 113 countries—52 more than in our 2017 survey, and rivaling Canada and France in terms of the percentage of leaders who received its advice and assistance. Nevertheless, the ability of the PRC to reshape international norms or displace global heavyweights such as the US and the UN system is not a fait accompli, in part because its influence is perceived with mixed feelings.”
For China, the results are a mixed bag: the survey finds a nation that is doubling down on engagement in countries farther afield from its historical emphasis on the Asia-Pacific. Beijing rose in the rankings on the measure of donor influence (+13) to join the elite ranks of the top 10, the first bilateral donor outside of the OECD’s development assistance committee (DAC) to do so. (The DAC includes primarily Northern donors, including the G7 members).
This is a win for China, which aims to challenge the traditional North-South development model. But Beijing’s 8th place showing in influence drops sharply when adjusted for how positively leaders perceive its influence, to 17th place. “This implies that China must overcome a perception challenge, if it is to live up to its positioning as a development partner who seeks to promote a “community of common destiny,”” said Custer.
While influential donors are often also the most helpful, that is not the case for China. According to AidData’s index on helpfulness in implementing policy, China placed 32nd. “One possible explanation for this stark divergence, the largest we saw in this survey wave, may stem from how China derives its influence in the eyes of leaders,” said Custer. “We found 36 percent of respondents said that China’s influence was best described as “indirectly influential due to its economic or political importance globally,” as opposed to any direct action it had undertaken in the context of its development cooperation. In other words, the main source of China’s strength as a top influencer seems to be highly connected to the power of its purse, as the world’s second largest economy in nominal GDP. This economic clout certainly affords China a seat at the table when leaders are setting the development agenda and determining their policy priorities. However, this capacity may be insufficient for it to be perceived as a helpful partner.”
Although China is clearly increasing its geographic footprint, it was most influential with respondents closest to home: those in East Asia and Pacific, Europe and Central Asia, and South Asia. Meanwhile, 82 percent of respondents who reported receiving advice or assistance from Beijing were executive branch officials (75 percent) or parliamentarians (7 percent), far higher than for other donors. This provides credence to the argument that, while China is interested in winning the hearts and minds of foreign publics, it is still predominantly government-centric in its efforts.
Although substantial ink has been spilled on China’s interest in setting up alternative multilateral venues, relatively new Beijing-led multilateral organizations like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) have yet to made a dent with leaders—just 2 percent of respondents reported receiving advice or assistance from the AIIB, which ranked 39th most influential and 37th most helpful.
The researchers also noted the high performance in certain aid sectors of Taiwan. In the social sector, Taiwan was a surprising top 10 influencer, reflecting successful assistance programs and engagement in areas like social infrastructure and services, education, and healthcare. Though only the 21st largest economy by GDP among the donor countries in the survey, it stood alongside the US (the world’s largest economy) as among the top 10 influencers in the economic sector.
The Biden Administration’s call to action for an organized response by G7 states to China is timely. While European nations have, until recently, been less outspoken about the threat posed by competition from China, it doesn’t mean that all is well for them. “It seems unlikely that China is on the cusp of displacing top multilaterals or the US in the eyes of leaders of low- and middle-income countries,” concluded Custer. “However, middle powers like Germany, Sweden and Japan may increasingly find their voices displaced by intensifying great power competition rhetoric.”
For more, read the full report, Listening to Leaders 2021: A Report Card for Development Partners in an Era of Contested Cooperation.