Making Sense of China’s Global Development Initiative

Aiming to tackle global risks and challenges, China poses various propositions. China’s Global Development Initiative (GDI) is a relatively novel one but how to understand it?

August 4, 2023
Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hong Kong and Rhodes Scholar
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China’s Global Development Initiative (GDI) is a relatively novel proposition. More precisely, it was formally introduced in President Xi Jinping’s address at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2021.  In his speech, Xi highlighted the case for bolstering confidence, strengthening bonds across socioeconomic and regional cleavages, and fostering favorable conditions for the joint tackling of global risks and challenges — undergirded by China’s long-standing diplomatic doctrine of South-South cooperation.

In June 2022, China chaired the High-level Dialogue on Global Development, which culminated in a statement from the chair, with 32 practical measures for action and to increase international cooperation.  As such, the GDI constitutes a core advancement of China’s preeminent role within global governance, by promulgating discourse aimed at reforming – as opposed to replacing – existing institutions.  

The following article sets forth three objectives. First, the article sets out the problems, challenges, and structural malaise plaguing the international system in which the GDI is situated. Second, the article reiterates the particular set of principles and values to which the GDI must adhere to ensure it is truly equipped for an increasingly multipolar world – even if it is in an uneven and unequal manner.  Third, the article outlines specific recommendations for the GDI to avoid past pitfalls experienced by countries, including China, concerning international developmental policies, especially in relation to aid and infrastructural development.

Setting the Scene – Why the World Needs a New Developmental Framework

In its advancement of the GDI, China has several motivations, which are extensively and overtly stated and others cited more subtly. These motivations echo broader concerns harbored by the international community, in relation to existing developmental approaches, which often place an excessive level of focus on capital-intensive and -driven growth, at the expense of the environment and social considerations at large.

The first concern is that within economic orthodoxy and public policymaking consensus, economic growth has often been pitted against sustainable development, as if the two concepts were incompatible. Countries are told that growth necessarily leads to cutting corners and development of tentative inequalities and that these inequalities, and neglect of wider considerations, will be offset once countries become sufficiently prosperous. The Kuznets Curves (in both their environmental and inequality forms)  broadly capture this notion. Yet as the Earth continues to warm and sea levels rise, the world is set to surpass emission targets that 195 countries agreed at the Paris Agreement in 2016. Clearly a radical paradigm shift is needed. Each country’s development need not – and should not – come at the expense of their commitment to minimizing unnecessary energy dissipation, reducing emissions, and encouraging citizens to shift away from devastating climate practices, such as industrial farming and mass grazing.  

The second concern, is that the globe is becoming precipitously unequal. Existing geographical and climate-centric divides between regions, including resource and technology induced disparities between the Global North and Global South and the surge in geopolitical and territorial conflicts, have contributed to the systematic entrenchment of global inequity. Compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and the continuing conflict in Ukraine, developing economies struggle to ensure their core territorial and developmental rights are recognized by well-endowed counterparts in the developed world. Significantly, the Chinese government has sought to promulgate social development as a core right for developing economies.  Moreover, the right to development enhances other equally important rights that bind governments, including civil and associational liberties. However, existing appraisals of developing economies through excessively Western-centric lenses, underpinned by a fixation over political liberties and a downplaying of substantive socioeconomic welfare, do not constitute a valid means of understanding the world at large.

The third and most systemically persistent concern is that few existing multilateral organizations and transnational initiatives have thus far succeeded in reflecting the voices of the majority of citizens within the Global South. Whether it be the imposition of excessively stringent inhibitions upon the fiscal and monetary policies of developing nations  – in the name of enforcing purported financial “discipline” – or the tendency of ill-informed governmental actors working exclusively with exclusionary, exploitative political leaders that are unaccountable to their own citizens – it is clear that leading international organizations and multilateral initiatives are failing to improve the real material conditions of citizens.

Clarifying the Substance – Pinning Down the Core Values of GDI

The GDI is designed to extend opportunities for development to the countries that need it most. Some commentators have asserted that the GDI is under-substantiated within the status quo, stating that while the GDI’s ideals and aspirations are clear, its advocacy and prescriptions remain amorphous. Adoption of the principles outlined below negates the cynical assessments of the GDI’s potential efficacy to provide a guide for policymakers involved in shaping the substance and content of the GDI as they embrace development aligned within a multipolar world.

First, the primary focus of the GDI is the advancement of the interests of smaller and medium states. The collective rights of developing countries are best pursued through their state political and institutional trajectories and advancement of national interests. These rights are actively contravened by existing initiatives, which over emphasize evolutionary steps to “fit the mold” of monolithic ideals that ostensibly provide sound governance. However, sustainable international development cooperation only emerges when more powerful states acknowledge and respect the rights of smaller and medium regional powers to pursue their own agenda based on independent considerations of great power rivalry. Testament to the increasing independence and autonomy of key regions, as they emerge from the shadows of American military influence and the lingering legacy of Soviet Union, was the recent inaugural summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the five Central Asian states, which took place late July this year. The summit saw participating countries affirm the need for strengthening cooperation across trade and investment, energy, education, agriculture, culture and other sectors.  The GDI is premised on embracing and harnessing the strategic autonomy of all states.  

Second, the GDI seeks to ensure that the political leaders in the respective participant governments are accountable to their people. The temptation to view leading politicians and bureaucrats as representative of the interests of the people with absolute discretion over how affairs within “their” countries are governed, must be avoided. It is certainly true that peoples of all nations possess strong and inviolable rights to governing their own affairs, but it is equally plausible to argue that countries who fail to respect the sovereignty of other nations — and ‘intervene’ justified by claiming to improve the lives of citizens in other states — are actually the worse transgressors within the international order. These facts, however, do not constitute an argument or excuse for irresponsible and callous leaders to take advantage of others’ inaction to pursue policies that are blatantly abusive for their own citizens’ interests. From the Rajapaksa administration in Sri Lanka , which squandered billions of yuan in aid offered by China, to the Ferdinand Marcos regime in the Philippines during the Cold War that was largely propped up by expansive American aid , it is apparent that developmental aid fails to reach the people who need it most. Thus, the GDI must keep at its core the common folk of all countries and ensure that administrators of developmental aid are answerable to and cognizant of the interests of the poor and needy. To realize these ambitions, aid programs need to adopt high standards for policy-making and implementation and not become distant and cold international technocrats or fall foul of the erratic whims of a few select, but unaccountable leaders.

Third, the GDI is positioned as a complement, but not an alternative, to existing developmental initiatives advanced by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), amongst others. Indeed, the GDI can serve as a balanced source of critique and establish constructive reforms to existing multilateral financial institutions, by illuminating superior means for sustainable development. Given the gradual awakening of populations around the world to the importance of environmental protection, mitigation and adaptation to climate change, respect and accommodation of social interests, and improvements to the quality of developmental governance globally , it is important that the GDI serves as a point of reference and dialogue partner, as opposed to rival, for existing initiatives. All countries retain the right to exercise independent decision making and therefore cannot be asked or coerced to ‘choose sides’ between different multilateral organizations.

Important Action Points — What should the GDI prioritize?

The three principles outlined above exemplify the urgency of the GDI and advance principles to ensure success. One practical question remains: what should the GDI prioritize substantively? Two key factors are crucial for the GDI’s successful implementation.

The first crucial factor is food security. Genuinely effective development cannot come without the nourishment of the hundreds of millions of citizens who deserve the right to life, to nutrition, and to a fair chance of obtaining better living standards. As the effects of shifting precipitation patterns and global warming continue to accelerate in the status quo, compounded by the detrimental consequences of geopolitical conflicts, it is clear that food (in)security poses a severe challenge to many countries in the Global South. Countries that lack purchasing power, stock levels, and local production are most adversely affected – including populous countries such as Bangladesh and Ethiopia, or conflict-prone and war-torn states such as Somalia and Yemen.  In stepping up to its role as a responsible, leading global stakeholder, China can expand its investments in effective knowledge sharing and transfer programs that equip farmers, scientists, and entrepreneurs in developing economies with cost-effective means of producing and storing food, to meet the ever-growing demand within such countries.

Indeed, the issue of food security also highlights the innate inseparability of development and peace. Civil strife and military conflicts inevitably result in mass disruption to supply chains, destruction of key agricultural and farming infrastructure, as well as population displacement, which are all intermediary causes contributing to famine and food crises globally. As noted by Chinese Ambassador to Liberia Ren Yisheng, the Chinese experience has demonstrated that a peaceful, stable society is the prerequisite for all forms of development.  Thus, China must assume a greater role as a peace-broker and mediator in regional and international conflicts, including those between Russia and Ukraine and Israel and Palestine.

The second priority is the provision of mass education. Education is key to unlocking the vast human potential contained within workforces, especially when it comes to supporting the economic transition from the primary to the secondary, or, in exceptional cases, directly to the tertiary sectors. Service-sector productivity is pivotal in ensuring a country’s international competitiveness, as argued in a 1992 McKinsey Quarterly article , and crucial that governments are given the support and resources to progress their own citizens’ education. As a leading country in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) research and innovation, China possesses the capacity and expertise to lead, not just by example, but by scaling existing education, academic, and knowledge exchange programs to create more scholarships and enrollment opportunities for students from developing countries. Moreover, China has the capacity to conduct genuinely meaningful dialogues and conversations with foreign counterparts to devise development paths uniquely attuned to the particular circumstances of individual states.

The Global Development Initiative is an innovative, empowering, and transformative force for good. Yet to accomplish the GDI’s stated objectives and realize its potential, it must involve as many like-minded partners as possible, and feature truly representative cross-sections of stakeholders, including ordinary citizens, the burgeoning middle classes, technocrats and experts, and of course, establishment politicians from different countries, to be of service to the global poor.


Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hong Kong and Rhodes Scholar
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