Chinese Leadership in the Evolution of “Hub” and “Parallel” Globally Oriented Institutions
Chinese Leadership in the Evolution of “Hub” and “Parallel” Globally Oriented Institutions
Andrew F. Cooper 0 1 2 3
Yanbing Zhang 0 1 2 3
Andrew F. Cooper 0 1 2 3
0 School of Public Policy and Management, Tsinghua University , Beijing , China
1 UNU CRIS (Institute on Comparative Regional Integration) , Brugge , Belgium
2 The Department of Political Science and The Balsillie School of International Affairs, University of Waterloo , Waterloo , Canada
3 Institute of International Strategies and Development, Tsinghua University , Beijing , China
This paper examines the trajectory of Chinese leadership in globally oriented organizations of a self-selective informal nature. In doing so, it shifts attention away from the role of China in established formal institutions, above all the United Nations. The focus instead is on the increasingly robust activity centered post the 2008 global financial crisis on the “hub” forum the G20 and an array of “parallel” non-western institutions including the BRICS and the Belt and Road Initiative. The key theme of this paper is that China has adopted a dualistic strategy that allows it act as both a key insider and outsider in the global system. From an international perspective, such an approach allows China to gain status as a rising power while not compromising its sense of solidarity with the rest of the non-west. Domestically, the approach builds on lessons gained from the earlier debate about entry into the World Trade Organization which marked a sharp divide between liberals and nationalists. A dualistic approach that allowed China to be a core member of the hub G20 and a driver of autonomous initiatives defused the possibility of such a contentious internal debate.
China; Global governance; International organizations; Informal institutions; G20; BRICS; Belt and Road initiative
The “rise” of China has grabbed enormous attention. However, some important
institutional dimensions of China’s ascendancy have remained under studied. This is
surprising as the shift in the trajectory in Chinese leadership in globally oriented
institutions highlights a number of key points about the 21st century global
governance that need to be teased out in greater detail. The core theme of this paper
is that the nature of the evolving institutional orientation of China’s leadership
marks an unprecedented turn. In earlier eras, big powers gained access to “concerts”
of power due to military victory
(Ikenberry 2001; Paul 2016; Alexandroff and
. China’s pathway into the 21st century equivalent—the “hub” G20
forum at the leaders’ level—has been very different in that the catalyst for
transformation was a crisis of a very different type, the global financial crisis (GFC)
of 2008 when China had become the second largest economy of the world while
remaining an outsider of the traditional G7 leadership
(Cooper 2010; Cooper and
Thakur 2013; Kirton 2013; Luckhurst 2016)
. If China’s move into the elevated G20
was uncontested at the international level, the shift in mode of participation remains
in historical context a highly divergent and sensitive shift. Although its value as a
crisis committee could be justified on efficiency grounds, the G20 as an informal
self-selective body lacked the legitimacy that China long treasured through the
centrality of the United Nations (UN) and over time the International Financial
Institutions (IFIs) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). The G20 lacked a
charter and other attributes of formal international standing, including established
headquarters and organizational structure. Moreover, not only had China’s own
experience with informal bodies up to the GFC been decidedly negative, a shift to
insider status in this type of self-selective forum meant a distancing from countries
in the global South, a constituency that China long felt a sense of solidarity with.
Under these conditions, what is striking about China’s role in this institutional
hub is the patience and flexibility of its approach. Initially, the emphasis was on a
tactical hedging, with a cautious style. Over time, furthermore, elements of a
dualistic strategic focus were emphasized. China with the catalyst of the GFC
embraced its insider status within the G20. Symbolically, China was ready to move
into the spotlight, with a massive upgrade in terms of visibility at the initial G20
summits. Operationally, though China took a low key approach, amid concerns that
on a number of issues (most notably on currency, imbalances), the target might be
China itself. It was only after this initial phase of the G20 subsided, with diminished
coordination on the financial agenda, that China took on a more assertive leadership
In global terms, China sought to offset the embrace of an insider role in two
different (and somewhat contradictory) ways. On one hand, it attempted to balance
the privileging of a self-selective hub by connecting the agenda of the G20 to the
priorities of formal institutions, especially the UN and the WTO. On the other hand,
China sought to stretch out the use of informal institutions beyond the G20 (and the
west) to “parallel” initiatives
(Barma et al. 2007; See also Chin 2010; Paradise
2016; Stuenkel 2016)
. In 2009, the same year that the G20 consolidated itself as the
new apex with respect to global coordination between the world’s economic powers,
China took part in the first official BRICS summit, thus founding an autonomous
globally oriented organization. As with the G20 jumps, out about China’s approach
to the BRICS was its patience and flexibility. At the outset, China was prepared to
let other members move out in front in terms of leadership. But over time, not only
did China’s leadership position within the BRICS becomes more apparent, the
assertive use by China of parallel and largely informal forums extended into an
array of other institutions including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO),
the Silk Road Fund and the One Belt One Road Initiative (BRI) and in some
respects the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (although the AIIB has taken on
some aspects of a formal institutional character).
We argue that, notwithstanding the neglect of this dynamic in the
westerndominated literature, it is this two-sided approach with very specific international
goals and domestic strategies that is central to the role of leadership by China in the
21st century. The hosting of the 2016 G20 Hangzhou summit indicates that China is
willing and able to identify itself as a core insider at the apex of level of global
politics. Yet, China was not prepared to lock itself into this hub forum at the
expense of other options. Building on the BRICS parallel model, even before the
Hangzhou summit, China had decided to hold the “Belt and Road Forum for
International Cooperation” in May 2017 to increase its influence in global
governance. At the same time, China demonstrated that it was willing and able to
play a bigger role within the G20, and it took care not to sacrifice its image as an
assertive and parallel-directed outsider.
The salience of attention to this duality is made more acute, by the fact that
argumentation over self-selective informal institutions prior to the 2008 GFC within
China was not central to strategical thinking about global economic governance.
What was crucial—besides ensuring that China’s P5 position at the UN was not
compromised—was working out what China’s role should be in the formal context
of the WTO. Whereas prior to the GFC most Chinese commentators accepted the
status quo in terms of G forums, that is to say that China should not seek entry into
the G7/8, but that it should engage actively at the level of the G20 finance made up
of finance ministers and central bankers from the time of the Asian financial crisis at
the end of the 1990s, the nature of China’s accession to the WTO remained highly
contentious and formed a key dividing line between Chinese liberals and
nationalists. Although in some ways reflective of a more generalized divergence
in policy outlook
(Pan and Xu 2017)
, the split in attitude towards international
institutions had a distinct character that eventually spilled over into the framing of
the G20 and parallel institutions. Standing back from the debate liberals can be
viewed as having a commitment to the (western created) global system albeit with
some degree of differentiation in institutional focus. Alternatively, nationalists show
some willingness to engage with international institutions if this approach is deemed
to be in the national interest, along with a decided orientation to embrace
The shift to embrace a wider spectrum of informal institutions—not only the hub
G20 but beyond the G20 to an array of parallel institutions—was useful in two
different ways. Externally, the dual focus of this approach not only allowed China to
cast itself as both an insider and outsider in global institutions, in a manner that was
far less awkward than in the UN (with its UNSC status) and the WTO (where its
position remains in ambiguous fashion between its legal status as a developing
country and its own preference to be termed a “large developing trading nation”). It
also allowed China to claim solidarity with other key members of the global South
(via BRICS) as well as to project new forms of non-western leadership.
Internally, the approach was focused on defusing another potential contentious
debate. As highlighted by the split between liberals and nationalists over WTO
accession, the choice of joining a western-created international organization was a
polarizing issue. Yet, unlike the WTO, a dualistic strategy was possible in which
China became an insider within the “hub” G20 and at the same time maintained its
credentials as an outsider through the creation of parallel autonomous institutions.
Nor was the image of hedging sustained over. Using the flexibility of form that
selfselective informal institutions allowed China was able to build its institutional
projection from a cautious low key approach to a more robust—even ‘bold’—form
2 The Unprepared Greater Role in Global Economic Governance Before
Since the GFC in 2008, China’s role in global governance has become an important
topic in both China and the world. As the host for both the G20 Hangzhou summit in
2016, as well as the 2017 BRICS and BRI summits, China is in the institutional
spotlight. However, what we want to highlight in this preliminary section is that
prior to the 2008 global financial crisis, and there was some considerable
uncertainty in China’s policy and academic circles about the appropriate way
forward. As early as 2005, Robert B. Zoellick, the American deputy Secretary of
State, had stressed that China should become “a responsible stakeholder” of the
world system, which it had become deeply involved in
. However, at
the China’s domestic level, there was a quite different picture of China’s role in
global governance. We try to argue that within China, there have always been two
broad lines of thinking. One may be called a nationalist–socialist-conservative line,
which highlights China’s national interest and takes a very distrustful view towards
the west, and western-created liberal world order. The other takes an international
perspective and hopes that China can insert itself into the liberal world and may
even become a liberal state like the west. The struggle between these two different
schools of thought laid down the foundation of China’s dualistic approach towards
global governance in recent years.
Amid these internal differences, there was a common suspicion of
westerndominated informal bodies. The G7 was viewed as lacking legitimacy, as were
coalitions of the willing mobilized in either Kosovo or Iraq. The experience of
“outreach” with respect to the G20 was for its part highly frustrating for China.
Attempts to reform the G8 from the inside were directed through the so-called
Heiligendamm or Outreach 5 (O5) process between 2005 and 2009, through which
different members of the G8 took the lead in reaching out to a cluster of emerging
markets and regional hubs, a grouping that included Brazil, India and South Africa
as well as China (although at odds with the later BRICS construct, Mexico was
included albeit not Russia as it had become a member of the G8 and was not viewed
as part of the global South)
(Cooper and Antkiewicz 2008)
Such an initiative was intended to increase the legitimacy of the G8, as the
informal dialogue was intended to create trust, bring more understanding of
common responsibilities on global issues and explore avenues for stalled
negotiations in other international forums, especially the Doha WTO Round.
However, several mishaps at the launch of the Heiligendamm process as well as the
general approach to it as outreach did not contribute positively to the process. The
most infamous incident was the release of the communique´ that announced the
establishment of the Heiligendamm process without any input from the O5 and
before the emerging powers actually joined the G8 meetings. The response by China
was that the G8 Outreach would not be used as “a means of exerting pressure on
For Chinese liberals, the best option for China within the global system was
through formal institutions. Above all, this meant full support for the UN. A number
of commentators pointed to the more assertive role of China prior to the GFC
(Cooper and Fues 2008)
. According to one: “China has quickened the pace of its
interactions with the United Nations, and in recent times, it has outperformed the
United States as a player in New York” (Fullilove 2006).
Although space was allowed for cooperative activity via self-selective informal
bodies—most notably the G20 finance—the first best option was to consolidate its
secure position within the Permanent 5 of the United Nations Security Council
(UNSC). As the eminent Chinese economist Yu Yongding put it in 2005, although
China moved past its 1960s stance of “extreme cautiousness, sensitivity and
defensiveness” with fears of “falling intro traps”, there was a clear line drawn
between the legitimacy accorded to the UN and cautioned against any attempt to
“upgrade the G20” to the leaders level as being “unwarranted”
(Yu 2005: 188)
The major debate in China prior to the GFC was not about informal institutions,
but about the implications of China’s entry in 2002 into the WTO, a formal global
economic governance body Lardy argues that “entry into the World Trade
Organization is a seminal event in China’s economic history and the history of the
world trading system”
(Lardy 2002: 174)
. Chan also states that “China’s entry into
the WTO is arguably the most significant peaceful change in the global political
economy in the post-Cold War world”
. However, since the beginning,
Chinese intellectual circles were divided into two parts. One side supported
globalization in general and China’s WTO entry in particular and the other stood on
the opposite against the entry
(Fewsmith 2001; Garrett 2010; Feng 2006)
the Chinese state was supportive of the entry.
In fact, neither the nationalists nor the liberals at the turn of the century predicted
China’s WTO entry would bring China huge trade surplus and foreign reserves and
cause the so-called “global imbalance” later. However, some brief reviews of their
debates then can certainly show us the evolvement of China’s ideological context
before and after the global financial crisis.
For Chinese liberals, the WTO entry was mainly a political and legal issue rather
than an economic one. They generally believed that the entry could push China’s
domestic reform further and ignored the impact of the entry on the world economy.
For examples, He Qinglian argued that after entering the WTO, the Chinese state
would have to follow the rules of the international community rather than its own.
Under this kind of situation, the state will become “soft” and suffer from internal
contradictions, and it would eventually be forced to change. “That is the main
reason I argue China should enter the WTO”, said He
. Fewsmith noted
that the famous political liberal Liu Junning discussed the political implication of
China’s WTO entry and expressed the same view as He Qinglian
argued that “China’s entry into the WTO implies that China will
start formally (zhengshi) to integrate itself into the world capitalist economic and
political system, the basic characteristics of which are market economics and
. Another political liberal, Yang Xiaokai, made a
more cautious statement on WTO entry than He and Liu. Yang argues that if the
WTO entry “stimulates the initiation of a real constitutional negotiation among
different interest groups in China, then China’s WTO membership will benefit
China as a whole in a profound way. If the ruling party can successfully block the
initiation of the constitutional negotiation and carry out a new dual track approach
in implementing WTO game rules, then China as a whole may suffer from its WTO
. However, Yang certainly supports the entry. In addition,
in a report written to China’s President Jiang Zemin soon after China signed the
WTO Accession Protocol, Wu Jinglian, a famous economist, highlighted the
importance of the rule of law for a market economy
For the nationalists, the main reason for them being against the WTO entry was
that they worried both that China’s domestic economy would be damaged by the
entry and that it ignored the impact of Chinese entry on the world. As the last
negotiator of the China’s WTO entry, Long Yongtu stands out as symbol of the
entry. For example, in August, 2005, Long met a face-to-face challenge. In an
important forum in Guangzhou to explore how to develop the automobile industry
in China, Long said that “I have a long term view that after a foreign firm comes to
China, if it pays tax to the government and employs Chinese workers, it is a Chinese
firm” and that “we should not create a national brand with the only purpose of
creating a national brand”. Just after he finished saying the above words, an old man
soon stood up and criticized him. This person was He Guangyuan, the former
minister of the Ministry of Machinery. He argued that the purpose of cooperating
with foreign firms was to learn their technology and their management skills to
strengthen China’s firms, which should have their own intellectual property rights
and develop their own brands. Only through this way could China benefit
. The Long-He debate soon raised a hot discussion in the forum which
spread through the Internet and other media. It seemed that more people stood with
He Guangyuan than Long Yongtu on whether China should have its own national
industries and national brands. Some websites were even set up to discuss whether
Long is a traitor or a hero of China (NetEase 2005). Long’s answer is, “I am neither
a hero nor a traitor; I only represented China in a negotiation”
(Xinhua News 2005)
The Long-He debate was like a symbol of the different perspectives of China’s
nationalists and liberals towards China’s relationship with WTO in particular and
global economic governance in general. Yet, these differences should not be
exaggerated. It was quite clear, although the nationalists and liberals were different
from each other, their main focus was China rather than the world.
With this context in mind, the Chinese government’s attitude towards global
economic governance was also very cautious. Indeed, western scholars of global
governance could be dismissive of China’s performance. Two close observers for
instance labelled China a “passive self-interested status seeker”
(Kirton and Koch
, willing to embrace the G20 (and the enhanced status) but with little focus on
taking any initiatives, preferring to defend its own interests. This was largely caused
by that China was short of talents to play the game which it had to face soon. The
other case shows this dilemma.
After G20 at the elevated level came into being, China hosted the annual
ministerial level meeting in 2005. Before the meeting, the Canadian-Based Centre
for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) the main promoter of G20 proposed
a joint conference as the second track dialogue with an important Chinese
institution. Because of China’s regulation, this kind of ordinary international
conference in the west should be authorized by the Chinese government. At the
beginning, the authority was reluctant to let have this kind of conference happen in
China and even blocked the visa application of several important international
guests to the last minutes for the meeting
(Author’s interview 2010a)
. Although the
conference finally was hold in Beijing, it showed the Chinese government’s less
than positive view of global governance at the time, and also the different styles of
China towards diplomacy from that of the west.
Quantitatively, the “China Knowledge Resource Integrated Database (CNKI)”,
China’s largest database of China’s academic journals and media publications to
search articles and reports on “global governance” reinforces this impression. It is
quite clear that it was only with the GFC that “global governance” came to the
forefront in China. The graph of the statistical analysis can be found below: with
China inevitably moving to the center of global economic governance because of its
economic size, its huge foreign reserve, its non-G8 status, and its high contribution
to global economic growth amid the 2008 shocks (Fig. 1).
3 The Gradual Embrace of the G20 by China
It is well rehearsed in the literature that President George W. Bush called President
Hu Jintao to discuss the possibility of the first G20 summit, and President Hu
supported this idea. Buttressing this impression, one author of this paper was
informed of the support of the G20 by President Hu Jintao by Paul Martin, the
former prime minister of Canada. The other heard this from a China’s diplomat who
handled this phone call directly when he worked in China’s embassy at Washington.
Following President Bush, the Obama administration also showed great interest to
work with China. At odds with the choices of her predecessors, Secretary Hillary
Clinton chose East Asia rather than Western Europe as her first foreign visit. She
used an old Chinese proverb to describe the Sino–US relationship then, namely, “we
are on the same boat and should work together closely (tong zhou gong ji)”
. During that period, some American
strategists also began to promote the idea of G2—a concept that seems originally to
have originally come from Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former National Security
Adviser (when China’s foreign minister Yang Jiechi went to visit him, he discussed
this idea with Yang)
(author interview 2010a, see also Garrett 2010)
and called for a
closer relationship between USA and China on global affairs.
China rejected the idea of “G2”
(Sohu 温家宝:中国不赞成G2 Sohu 2009)
showed great interest in G20, particularly the move at the G20 Pittsburgh summit to
define the summit as “the premier forum for international economic cooperation”.
To be sure this move signaled to China that there some significant benefits from
working within the architecture of an expanded G process. Although China had been
excluded from the initial meetings about the construct of the G20, by 2009 it had
assumed a privileged insider status. In the lead up to Pittsburgh, for instance, the
sherpas from China joined his counterparts from the US, the UK, Germany and
France in Frankfurt, Germany where they reached the preliminary arrangement to
replace G8 and G8 + 5 with G20 as the main forum for global economic
governance (He 2015).
In domestic policy making terms, pushing the notion of G20 ascendancy while
not being overly ambitious in terms of participation within this hub forum allowed
an equipoise between the nationalists and liberals. For as Alex He argues quite
convincingly, some of the debate about China’s role in the G20 has replicated the
WTO debate, with the theory of “China’s responsibility” interpreted as a strategy to
“want to place excessive responsibilities on China…dragg[ing] down the rise of
China by saddling it with disproportionally heavy responsibilities
differences still emerged about policy preferences, any explicit tensions were
contained to a far greater extent than in the WTO debate by a balance between
engaging with the G20 but within the limits of a low key and sometimes defensive
Significantly, since 2008/2009, China began to fully appreciate that as an insider,
it had to pay more attention to global governance and to play a more sophisticated
role in the core architecture. In 2009, China’s leading think tank China Institutes on
Contemporary International Relations (CICRI) organized dozens of top experts in
this field to discuss the global financial crisis, the future of G20 and China’s role in
it separately after the London and Pittsburgh summits. The arguments from these
experts highlight the nuances of China’s understanding.
It should be mentioned at the outset that nearly, all of the experts perceived that
the 2008 global financial crisis to have fundamentally altered the international
system and the world order. A typical argument came from the vice president Yuan
Peng. Before the 2008 crisis, the world order in the Chinese context was described
as “one superpower plus several major powers” (yichao duoqiang), namely, US as
the super power and countries such as European powers, Russia, Japan, and China
as major powers. However, Yuan (2009a) argued that the crisis showed “one
superpower plus several major powers” as the old world order had changed to
“several major powers plus one superpower” (duoqiang yichao). The argument
basically means that US as the superpower is certainly in a process of relative
decline with other powers beginning to share more power within the international
system. That is to say, Yuan basically believes that the unipolar world order has
. Some scholars like Wang Xiangsui, a former PLA official
argued that the world order had already become a multi-polar one
However, the majority of the scholars like Prof. Chu Shulong at Tsinghua
university, a leading expert of American studies in China circumspectly understood
that other major powers was still far behind US because of its economic size and
creative capacity and the dominant role of the US dollar in the international
. Overall, most scholars believed that China should use
the global crisis and the hub G20 forum to make the Sino–US relationship work
As far as the relationship between China and the existing world order was
concerned, most scholars took more ambiguous views. For instance, the dean of the
school of International Relations at Beijing Foreign Language University, Prof. Li
Yonghui argued that on one side, China had certainly benefited from the existing
world order, which kept a stable external environment for China’s development.
Thus, China had always tried to maintain the stability of the existing system. On the
other side, though, China also should take a critical view, because some aspects of
this system are certainly unjustified and irrational, and thus, the system had become
something that cannot fully reflect China’s interest. Therefore, China should
advocate a new system and a new order
. Dr. Jiang Yong, the director of
the center of economic security at CICIR, argued that the global financial crisis
reflected the basic contradiction of global financial capitalism and China should take
a more national and socialist line to deal with outside world
However, within the writings of scholars like Prof. Li and Dr. Jiang who took a
suspicious view towards the existing world order, we cannot find out what kind of
order they exactly advocated.
A clear policy recommendation on how to change the existing world order in fact
came from the Chinese government and the focus was the international monetary
system. Just before the London G20 summit in April 2009, the Governor of China’s
central bank, Zhou Xiaochuan published two articles on the website of the bank.
The central idea of Zhou was that a super sovereign currency should replace the US
dollar as the international currency and IMF’s SDR may be used as it
The background of Zhou’s argument was quite explicit, namely, China hold huge
amount of US dollar as its foreign reserve and worried the devaluation of the dollar.
However, the purpose of the two articles was not quite clear, and we only could
have two speculative ideas. The first was that the Chinese leadership did not
understand the fundamentals of the US hegemony and the role of the dollar within
the regime, nor did they understand that this regime can be changed by an
international meeting like G20 summit. The second was that they played to different
logics at the international and domestic level. On the international level, they
wanted to show their dissatisfaction at the negative consequences on China caused
by the devaluation of the US dollar. On the domestic level, they hoped to show their
innocence to Chinese people. In fact, whether China should hold huge amount of US
dollar as its foreign reserve has always be a controversial topic in China, but the
government decisively wanted to buy more before the crisis. The crisis, the
devaluation of dollar and Zhou’s article pushed the government to face this
controversial issue directly, and this process of rethinking paved the way to
establish the array of parallel institutions beyond not only the hub G20 forum but the
BRICS, the New Development Bank, the AIIB, and the Silk Road Fund later.
It is very easy to understand why China took a positive view towards the G20 hub
summit around the year 2009/2010. Within the framework of G8 + 5 since 2005,
China did not have much status. In addition, China did not like the idea of G2. Only
within the G20 framework could China both play a major power role and keep its
identity as a developing country. Thus, nearly, all of the articles we reviewed take a
quite positive view towards the G20. The explicit structural need—and diplomatic
request—for China to be part of the summit process played well to Chinese
reputational claims. Although part of the more generalized ascendancy of emerging
powers generally and the BRICS specifically, China was accorded a special place in
the formation of the G20 (for example, getting the first invitation phone call from
President George W Bush).
By embracing the G20 from the outset, China challenged the negative images of
it as a revisionist country that is planning and actively working towards an overturn
of the status quo
. Not only did China refuse to place any
conditions on its participation, its declaratory statements of “rise” were muted. In
comparison with Brazil, for example, there was no sense of demand—or satisfaction
—that China had moved beyond the status of “outreach” country to the G7/8
To be sure, some senior scholars in the field of international relations wanted the
G20 to go further as a hub forum. For example, Prof. Lin Limin at CICIR argued
that even the G20 summit could be treated as the start of the change of the world
order, and it was nothing but a start
. Yuan Peng argued that it was not
clear what would happen to G20 summit when the crisis receded. The west used the
G20 summit to deal with the global crisis, but it was not quite clear what its future
. In an instrumental manner, the Chinese government was
satisfied with the evolution of the summit. In March 2010, China’s foreign minister,
Yang Jiechi argued that, following the Pittsburgh summit, the year 2010 would
become a year of formalizing and institutionalizing G20 summits (Yang 2010). In
the 2010 Toronto G20 summit, China’s President Hu Jintao argued that in the long
run, G20 should move from a crisis management arrangement to an effective
governance body and played the key role in global economic governance
China’s positive attitude towards global economic governance and G20 was
highly visible in the Political Report of 18th CCP’s Party’s Congress in 2012. In
fact, it was the first time, the term “global economic governance” appeared in the
Party’s policy document and the political report reflected China’s leadership’s views
on international strategy and domestic development in general. The report argues
that “China will strengthen macroeconomic policy coordination with the major
economic partners and deal with trade frictions with them properly. China will a
balance between its rights and its responsibility global affairs and actively take part
in global economic governance. China will promote liberalization of international
trade and investment and oppose protectionism in any forms”
That being said, some degree of caution was maintained. China in the initial
stages of the G20 demonstrated that it was onside with the G20’s agenda.
Nonetheless, its major signals to this effect did not come in the actual G20 summits.
Rather, policy announcements were made in parallel—and anticipatory—fashion.
The first and arguably the strongest sign of this pattern came with the announcement
by China of its massive stimulus package prior to Washington DC. However, this
was a type of process that continued. In the run-up to the June 2010 Toronto
Summit, the Chinese government tried to pre-empt pressure on the RMB by
announcing the restart of exchange rate liberalization.
When either indirect or direct demands were made on China, nevertheless, there
was resistance. On one front, this defensive style was focused on pushing back
attempts to widen the agenda beyond the crisis-committee agenda; moving the G20
past the financial crisis to an agenda that targeted issues such as development or
climate change. This resistance was in large part due to concerns about losing
autonomous decision-making as Acharya writes, China’s defensive posture comes
from its ‘desire not to sacrifice its sovereignty and independence for the sale of
multilateralism and global governance’
(Acharya 2011: 589)
. There were concerns
as well about process, with the intrusion of the G20’s agenda into areas better—and
more legitimately—the purview of the UN. Style and substance thus met, as the
strict compartmentalization between the G20 and the UN also reinforced China’s
credibility with non-members of the G20, which had concerns about the further G20
Such concerns came out in repeated fashion. Just before the London summit, for
example, papers were put forward by Vice Premier Wang Qishan and the Central
Bank Governor Zhou Xiaochuan, with Wang calling for the G20 “looking beyond
the needs of the top 20” in how the international financial system (IFS) is run
. Indeed, Eccleston et al. (2015: 310) write that the endorsement of G20
transatlantic cooperative initiatives encounters obstacles from emerging economies,
particularly from China because of fear of encroachment into national interests. A
case in point is China’s support for Hong Kong and Macau to be removed from the
OECD’s list of tax havens during the 2009 London Summit
Chinese resistance was even more robustly aimed at issues that more directly
targeted its policy space. An early—and on-going example—was the attempted use
of the G20 by the US to deal with currency issues. The other main example was the
attempted push on the question of imbalances. The on-going activities of the G20
thus showcased a fundamental paradox in the global system’s core institutional
architecture. The US—as made apparent by issues such as currency and imbalances
—wanted to maintain some elements of the disciplinary culture associated with the
G7/8. Still, in terms of capacity, the US no longer possessed the ability to change
policy space of other systemically important countries such as China on a coercive
basis. Such shifts can only take place on a voluntary basis, where such move is
viewed as being in conformity with national as well as international needs.
The effect of this governance gap has meant that China remains wary of some
aspects of the G20 process. Yet, even with this circumscribed comfort level, China
has moved to make strategic use of the G20. At one level, China has amplified the
G20 as an operational means of conducting bilateral or plurilateral relations. China
has been for instance been highly organized in arranging bilateral meetings at the
edges of the G20. The most striking illustration of this dynamic came with the deal
between President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping immediately
before the November 2014 Brisbane G20 summit, in which for its part China agreed
to cap its emissions—by 2030 at the latest—and to diversify its energy supply to
include more non-fossil fuels.
While embracing an insider position in the hub forum, China used the G20
meetings to build parallel and autonomous activity by the BRICs countries. If not
the key mobilizer of the BRICs as a summit process (leaving the leadership at the
initial stages to Russia and Brazil), China was an important animator of the BRICs
caucus meetings on the sidelines of the G20. Consistent with its own defensive
approach, the main motivation of this activity was explicitly instrumental, building
up a coalition of resistance against any G20 initiative such as on currency valuation
and imbalances that were deemed detrimental to its own national interests
In terms of the G20 summit itself, China’s hedging instinct—keeping options
open and not over-committing—progressed over time. Such an approach signified
that China viewed G20 from the start as a means to an end or ends. Instrumentally,
China was firmly committed to the G20 crisis-committee approach. However, it
remained cautious about how wide it wants to go in areas of agenda-stretch that
would take the G20 into steering committee territory. As one leading Chinese expert
argues: “There is a tension between China’s desire for the G20 to be an effective
body and its interest to preserve China’s independence over domestic affairs. This is
the reason for China’s ambivalence, for example, over the mutual assessment
mechanism that the G20 powers agreed that the IMF would initiate after the
Pittsburgh summit. China believes that this mechanism should be consultative and
instructive in nature, while others believe that it should have more authority to
intervene in order to help coordinate policies more effectively”
4 Consolidating the insider approach via the Hub G20
After the Party’s 18th congress, China’s new leadership with President Xi Jinping as
its core came to power. We can find, on one hand, that the new leadership continues
the established strategy of supporting economic globalization on the global level,
but with greater visibility on the global stage. Among the most important signs of
this shift in activity was the embrace of the hosting role at the Hangzhou G20
summit. Equally, China also begin to promote a greater array of parallel
autonomous international economic cooperation, not only via the BRICS, but
beyond through the SCO, AIIB, Silk Road Fund and the increasingly ambitious Belt
and Road Initiative (BRI). On both components, the dualistic approach became far
more robust in application.
China’s shift towards an assertive leadership role in the G20 hub forum marks a
fundamental shift from its pattern of past cautious engagement. In terms of the
details of this leadership role, certain themes jump out. As noted at the outset, one of
the key concerns for China is to balance the informality of the G20 with an
embedded connection back to the UN and other formal institutions. As early as the
second meeting of sherpas held in April 2016 in Guangzhou, China proposed that
the G20 members release a chairman’s statement to push all members to sign and
ratify the Paris Agreement on climate change reached in December 2015.
In terms of direct connections with other institutions, one of the most innovative
was the initiative by China to hold a ‘1 + 6’ Roundtable in Beijing between Chinese
Premier Li Keqiang and six leaders of the world’s leading international economic
and financial organizations, namely, President of the World Bank Group Jim Yong
Kim, Executive Director of the IMF Christine Lagarde, WTO Director General
Roberto Azeveˆdo, Director General of the International Labor Organization Guy
Ryder, Secretary General of the OECD Angel Gurria, and Chairman of the Financial
Stability Board Mark Carney. Together, they discussed and exchanged views on
global economic situation and challenges in general and global economic policies,
implementation of the 2030 development agenda, reinvigorating global trade,
structural reform, labor market policy, and international financial surveillance
reform in particular. All these later became the items on the G20 Hangzhou Summit
agenda. Although not all of these organizations fit the model of being formal
universal organizations, this ‘1 + 6’ Roundtable was an attempt to build a dialogue
between Chinese leadership and the major international economic and financial
Of particular note, given the discussion above, was the push at the G20 to endorse
the central role of the WTO in global trade governance and supports a further
strengthening of its functioning. Building on this principle, China launched the
G20’s Trade and Investment Working Group (TIWG) in 2016 and held four
meetings. In July, China hosted the first G20 Trade Ministers’ Meeting in Shanghai
as an institutionalized mechanism, which approved the China-proposed Terms of
Reference of the G20 Trade and Investment Working Group
(G20 Trade Ministers
In terms of support for the UN, China, prior to the Hangzhou Summit, released a
Position Paper on the Implementation of the 2030 Sustainable Development
Agenda, which links the implementation of the Agenda with its own 13th 5-year
plan. What was most significant was that under China’s leadership, the G20 put the
development issues higher than ever on its agenda within the global macro policy
framework. For the first time, the G20 came up with an action plan for the
implementation of the UN’s 2030 Development Agenda, and for the first time
agreed to take collective actions to support industrialization in Africa and the least
(G20 Leaders’ Communique 2016)
5 The spillover effect of institutional Development—BRICS as a parallel/outsider initiative
It is clear from this leadership approach that China had no appetite to return to
highly polarized “us and them” politics of previous eras. Instead of wanting to be on
the outside looking in at the power centers, they wanted to be part of the inner circle.
On the other hand, the legacy of opposition did not disappear completely. As
expressed by the nationalists on the WTO debate, having been made to feel as an
outsider in the western-dominated international order, China harbored feelings
entrenched discrimination and insufficient acknowledgement by the established
powers. As the experience of the O5 revealed, despite their growing economic
weight, they could still be kept to the sidelines of global governance, assigned to the
role of rule-takers and without the means to shape or significantly influence global
Indeed, it was this shared sense of relegation that acted as a catalyst for the
mobilization of the BRICS. Through ties via the O5, a common group identity was
(Cooper 2016; Cooper and Farooq 2015)
. Seeking a seat at the top
table with the established powers, therefore, did not preclude China opting for a
parallel counter-vailing strategy. Instead of simply mimicking the Western powers,
it wanted to actively differentiate itself.
Chinese analysts were optimistic about that the BRICs mechanism in declaratory
terms, suggesting that it would have “major significance for the whole world”,
because it could accelerate development of the multi-polarisation of the
international structure and to reform the unfair international political and economic system
. Yet, in operational terms—as initially on the G20—there was some
caution. The most prevalent view was that the BRICS could act as a lobby or caucus
on issues that united them. Chinese analysts suggested, for instance, that the BRICS
could also work together to resist protectionist trade measures by some developed
. They also urged that the four countries join hands to
strengthen their common voice in various international economic institutions, for
instance, the IMF. Before the G20 summits, the finance ministers and governors of
the BRICS central banks met to discuss issues of their common concern and
coordinate their positions. During the April 2009 London G20 Summit, most
notably, the BRICs countries publicized a joint statement requesting for more voting
power and representation in the IMF
At the 2016 Hangzhou G20, China—with the other BRICS—accelerated their
push for reform of the IFIs and urged the G20 member countries in collaboration
with the IMF to “step up efforts to increase the institution’s quota resources and
review the distribution of quotas and votes to ensure fair reflection of emerging and
developing economies”. A hard target was set for the completion of the 15th
General Review of Quotas by the IMF’s 2017 annual meeting
While building the ‘club’ culture, there was some internal debate about what the
relationship of China should be with the global South. Some such as the G20 sherpa He
Yafei argued that China could act as a representative of a larger group of emerging
powers as it moved into the inner circle of power
. For the part, though Chinese
experts understood, there are also quite a number of constraints for cooperation with the
BRICs countries more specifically. In addition to the different economic structures and
levels of development among the four countries, there were multiple points of
competition and rivalry. Ultimately, China regarded the BRICs grouping as a useful
platform to push for economic cooperation among these countries, to coordinate their
positions on key issues of common concern, and to combine to push the Western powers
for a larger share of the decision-making power at the global level.
This initial caution came to the fore in the formative stages of the creation of the
BRICS New Development Bank. After India advanced the idea at the 2012 New
Delhi summit, Chinese officials pushed back. Xu Qinghong, section chief of the
Banking Supervision Department at the China Banking Regulatory Commission
noted, “There are vast differences between us…. Looking at the history of other
multilateral institutions, I think such a feasibility study will take a long time and it
may test our patience. Since the Delhi Summit, so far in China there have been a lot
of doubts about a proposal”
However, as momentum for the proposal increased China moved to take
leadership. In doing so, moreover, China exhibited the advantages it possessed over
its BRICS partners. In terms of material resources, China with its massive
international monetary reserves well beyond three trillion dollars could propose an
asymmetrical model of contribution
. In terms of diplomacy, China was
tenacious in it the stance that the headquarters for the bank should be located in
Shanghai, a position that was championed in turn by its key think tanks. The
Financial Research Center at Fudan University argued post New Delhi summit that:
“China should strive to become the headquarters of the BRICS bank”
Research Center 2013)
The bargaining, which ultimately led to the finalization of the New Development
Bank with the headquarters in Shanghai, and with equal contributions of $ 10 billion
from each of the members, on the surface appeared to consolidate the club culture
among the BRICS members. However, while the headquarters was to be fixed, the
issue of capital commitment could be altered over time, opening the way to greater
Significantly, the parallel/outsider component of the dualistic approach has been
accentuated most notably by the initiatives related to the Silk Road Fund and the
BRI. Although much of the attention of these initiatives highlights the robust nature
of Chinese leadership, the blending of formal and informal components within the
institutional format of these initiatives should be overlooked. While these initiatives
contain a great deal of Chinese state capacity (including the hosting of the OBOR
summit), they also demonstrate informality in the sense that they are not classic
institutional institutions. They have flexibility of membership and a
6 Reflections on International Goals and Domestic Strategies
This paper has showcased the shift in China’s leadership performance in both the
hub and parallel institutions that gained ascendancy in the context of the GFC.
Although these institutions are most commonly viewed as exhibiting separate
dynamics, there are bound together by their self-selective informal nature. Unlike
the formal institutions that dominated the post 1945, and even the post 1989 era,
these forums were not designed to be universally oriented with an ever expanding
membership. Nor did they have a charter of principles. Nor did they have in most
cases a secretariat or fixed schedule of meetings.
The turn towards informal institutions was made more salient by the fact that this
trend was so unanticipated. China’s first option was to use the comfort zone that it
had created via the UN, with extended engagements with the IFIs and the WTO.
Informality, at least as it had been defined prior to the GFC, had a precarious sense
about it. Internationally, it risked defection from the rest in the global South.
Domestically, it risked opening up an even more contentious debate than featured in
the accession to the WTO.
Post GFC, however, was the advantages of engaging in new types of hub and
parallel institutions that took preference. The combination of an insider position
inside the G20 and an outsider position in the BRICS and beyond was attractive.
Internationally both validated China’s status, albeit in different ways. The G20
moved China to the top table of global economic governance. Membership in the
BRICS provided a valuable outlet for recalibrating China’s outsider position,
allowing it to be a critic as well as part of the establishment.
Furthermore, the changing global system did not contradict this dualistic
approach. Unlike in older eras, where there were explicit forms of exclusion (where
the Soviet Union and its allies, for example, had to chose explicitly between being
in or out of the IFIs and the GATT/WTO), global governance in the 21st century
possessed some space for variance. China did not have to choose between the G20
and the BRICS and other parallel institutions.
Domestically, the dualistic approach allowed a balancing if not a reconciliation
between Chinese liberals and nationalists. Committed advocates of the liberal
international system still wanted to push further with an engagement on the G20 and
other forms of complex interdependence. More explicit defenders of the national
interest, with greater support for the embrace of non-western institutions, wanted to
downplay the G20 and highlight the power of the BRICS and/or support for the
Although some flavor of these views can be picked up in the academic literature
(Yu 2015; Pang 2014)
, the split is also reflected in media analyses of the G20 and
BRICS. From the nationalist perspective, for instance, the commentary by Global
Times reveals this divergence. On the G20, the focus of attention is explicitly the
benefits for China of membership, while on the BRICS, Chinese leadership is
subordinated to collectivity
(Chu 2016; Global Times 2016)
China’s cautious stage-by-stage approach enhanced its ability to advance both
international goals and domestic strategies. Initially, China’s approach (in a similar
manner to the way, it managed the accession to the WTO) was reactive, with a
strong hedging dimension. Over time, though, China’s leadership attributes came to
the fore. Far from “trapped” inside the G20, this elevated hub institution has opened
up new avenues for parallel activity. China accepts that being an insider means
some form of adaptation, most obviously though sustained activity beyond the ambit
of the UN. Still, sensitivity to this adaptation is eased due not only to an
unwillingness to accept that this is part of a socialization process, but that other
forms of compensation are available. Strategically, this other side of the dualistic
approach comes out in the ability to create and persist with the BRICS and other
non-west oriented initiatives, with an increased projection of autonomous leadership
Acknowledgements Funding support for Andrew F. Cooper’s work has been provided by the Social
Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) [grant number 435–2015–1357].
Andrew F. Cooper is Professor at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and the Department of
Political Science, University of Waterloo, Canada. From 2003 to 2010, he was the Associate Director and
Distinguished Fellow of the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). His recent books
include BRICS VSI, OUP, 2016; and as co-editor Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy, OUP, 2013;
and Rising States, Rising Institutions: Challenges for Global Governance, Brookings, 2010. His scholarly
publications have appeared in a number of prestigious journals such as International Organization,
International Affairs, World Development, Global Governance and International Studies Review.
Dr. Zhang Yanbing is an Associate Professor at the School of Public Policy and Management, Tsinghua
University. He also serves as the Deputy Director of the Institute of International Strategy and
Development at the school. Currently, his main research interests include Asia security issues, global
governance and international development.
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