Checkmate: China's New Bank Wins Over U.S. Allies

Make no mistake: This is a contest for global supremacy. 

Two weeks ago, the United Kingdom applied to become a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a financial institution proposed by China and designed to  finance large-scale infrastructure projects in Asia. The decision triggered a scathing—and unusually public—rebuke from London’s Atlantic ally, the United States, which had lobbied hard against the bank. ncouraged by the United Kingdom’s decision, France, Germany, Italy, and South Korea quickly followed suit, with Australia and possibly even Japan soon to follow.

The AIIB represents the latest focal point in an ongoing contest between the United States and China for control of the institutional order that prevails in Asia. At stake are the power, wealth, and influence that accede to states that can exercise outsized sway over the agenda and activities of these multilateral organizations. Unsurprisingly, Washington favors the rules and institutions—like the IMF, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB)—that it established and has led for decades.

For its part, Beijing prefers an order that acknowledges and amplifies its rising regional influence. China has won the latest round of this rivalry, in part because the United States failed to exert its institutional predominance to outmaneuver China and maintain a dominant influence over Asia’s multilateral bodies.

To be sure, no one involved in the AIIB mess wants to cop to realpolitik, and so each player has scrambled for fig leaves. But make no mistake—at its core, this dispute is part of a power struggle between China and the United States, wherein each works to develop or maintain institutions that can serve as channels for their influence in the most populated part of the globe.

Beijing’s recent success with the AIIB derives in large part from the advantages that third-party states like the United Kingdom can hope to gain by “defecting” to newer Chinese efforts.

The Politics Behind the Bank

Although the case for a new development bank is strong on its merits, Beijing has ulterior motives for establishing the AIIB. Existing financial institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank focus on concessional lending and poverty reduction programs, rather than infrastructure investment.

As the ADB itself acknowledged in 2010, the region needs almost $8 trillion in new infrastructure spending by 2020. Because the ADB could provide only a small fraction of that amount, Beijing was able to rally support around a new effort to meet this need.

But whatever the bank’s economic merits, China has advanced its creation for geopolitical reasons. Beijing has grown increasingly dissatisfied with its picayune voting rights at Western-dominated international financial institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, and the ADB, and the AIIB promises to give China a stake commensurate with its interests and economic heft. In particular, some banking experts have estimated that China will have a controlling stake in the new bank by virtue of its economic size, although the specifics have yet been determined.

The AIIB proposal also mirrors a variety of other economic plans supported by Beijing, including a BRICS development bank, the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, the Silk Road Fund, and a Shanghai Cooperation Organization development bank. Taken together, these plans signal a broader pattern of establishing international institutions poised to compete with the American-backed international order.

To justify its opposition to the bank, Washington has expressed concerns about its governance standards, and in particular, about the AIIB’s putatively weak environmental and anti-corruption safeguards. Until those standards are established at a suitably high level, Washington claims, it will try to reform the bank through external pressure.

Practically speaking, this makes little sense; London has argued persuasively that it is generally easier to reform institutions from the inside. As has become painfully clear, the AIIB doesn’t need American participation to get off the ground, so the United States has little external leverage to induce reforms. If it did join, Washington could wield its financial stake to introduce best practices. This power matters the most now, when the bank is writing up its articles of governance and deciding on its basic structure and rules of operation.