Anatole Pang is a former Conservative council candidate for Twickenham, and is resident in Beijing. He is currently an active member of Conservatives Abroad there.
This week the newly created Tory peer Jim O’Neill, of “BRIC”-fame and now our tsar for the Northern Powerhouse, arrived in Beijing on a mission of understated but critical importance: officially signing up the UK to the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
This institution is being trumpeted as a future pioneer in driving infrastructural roll-out from China to Central and South East Asia, filling a gap left by existing organisations.
At a recent conference, a panel including John Howard and Tony Blair acknowledged that the US had basically cocked-up both tactics and strategy on AIIB.
Although understandably wary of rising Chinese influence in international organizations, the American government had failed to provide any of their regional allies a realistic alternative – reform of either the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank.
Understandably therefore, many Asian countries decided they had little to lose in agreeing to support a vehicle that is at the very least aligned with their interests of seeing more real infrastructure spending in the neighbourhood.
The subsequent competitive rush to auction amongst the Europeans – not only the UK but also Germany, France and others – was more of a surprise, and none more so than to ourselves.
Although British trade has been improving with China in recent years (almost doubling over the last few years) we continue to be the most sensitive to American strategic imperatives and, despite the least Anglophile presidency since Grover Cleveland, they to ours.
Furthermore, it has been only two short years since we emerged out of the “deep freeze” of relationships with China after Cameron and Clegg met the Dalai Lama in 2012. The peculiarity of British policy thus demands some examination.
In fact, it seems that most finance ministries, including the US, were warm to the AIIB based on economics. It was the political dimension necessitated some hard decisions, and Osborne likely drove this particular policy in light of three principle considerations.
The first reason is that of pragmatism about China’s relative position in the world both economically and politically.
The country’s economic performance over the last three decades hardly needs rehearsing but there are still interesting statistical points to consider – for instance, even at the now “low” 6.8 per cent – 7.1 per cent growth rate, China’s incremental GDP this year would in itself rank as the 19th largest economy in the world.*
In other words, one year’s additional output would warrant a place at the G20.
Therefore, the economic opportunities soon to be generated by the AIIB and other China-backed institutions such as the Silk Road Fund, the China-ASEAN Fund or the China-Africa Development Fund continue to be enormous, and something our companies should not be structurally excluded from.
The second motivation is a genuinely moral one: the existing institutions have manifestly failed in their missions, at least in Asia.
The World Bank deserves credit for what it has attempted to do in the last half a century, but it has nonetheless failed to adapt to the changing environment and demand, particularly in infrastructure.
Bureaucracy is but one problem, though perhaps the most fashionable one; concurrent to this is the slow adjustment to the need for using different financial instruments, and in particular to be an equity investor rather than purely a lender (something where Britain has always led strongly). The ADB is if anything, even slower.
The result is a well-documented infrastructure deficiency across the region, which is harming the living standards of more than a third of the world’s population.**
At the same time, it negatively affects trade and commercial opportunities for international companies including those from Britain. Quite literally, new bridges on the Mekong are impacting the fortune of shoemakers in Northampton.
The third calculation is the most subtle but poignant: a recognition that we are re-entering a world of what one could term “big countries”.
Big countries, to be blunt, are rule-givers rather than rule-takers who work bilaterally (if not unilaterally) rather than multilaterally to further their influence.
The best example remains closest to home: the United States, in everything from the International Criminal Court to trade negotiations to the size of airplane cabin luggage, will never submit to any agreement other than on its own terms.
Perhaps the most ironic current example of this is the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which is central in the discussion surrounding tensions in the South China Sea – where the US in unable to take a clearer line since it too never signed up to the agreement.
The US is of course entitled to do as it pleases, but it leaves those countries who have for so long clung onto her coattails in the international arena in a difficult position.
The reality is that the major emerging powers will soon be flexing their own muscles and, as George Osborne has indicated, we do not want to be left behind.
It is not only China of course, but Russia in Eastern Europe and Brazil in the South Atlantic and Africa, as well as India, Indonesia, Mexico and others who are now beginning to exercise a will to dominion.
Unipolarism could conceivably end within our lifetimes, and how Britain adapts to this emerging system in its new status as a middling country will define our diplomacy and economic development for the rest of this century.
The AIIB is China’s toy in the same way that the World Bank is America’s, or the ADB is Japan’s. Britain’s commitment to be a partner in the project – to effectively accept their rules just as we accept America’s – is an admission that we need to expand our friendship circle beyond our comfort zone, and certainly not to be shut out of the new games in town.
And the result, for what it’s worth, has been emphatic in everything from AIIB governance (Britain has obtained one of the very few secretariat seats reserved for non-Asians) to bilateral trade to social media fawning over the new British ambassador in Beijing, the impressive Barbara Woodward.
In the end then, Jim O’Neill is coming to Beijing because he really got it right all those years ago. Not necessarily in pure economic terms (Russia, for instance, is unlikely to find an upwards trajectory in the near-term) but rather with the idea that big countries will soon be here again.
Will we ever trust them in quite the same way we instinctively empathise with America? Probably not; but engaging with them is not just about playing powers off against each other; it is broadening our own horizons and helping us help ourselves in the global race.
Britain’s future need not recede into insignificance just because of our comparative decline in size, of course; after all, Israel has managed to exercise disproportionate influence simply by remaining a maverick.
However, irrespective of such strategies, Britain will only find a sustainable identity for itself – missing since the end of empire and accentuated by American decline – once it embraces the changing status of others.
*2015 GDP growth has been forecast at 6.8 per cent by the IMF and 7.1 per cent by the World Bank. According to both organisations’ published statistics, this would generate a figure which on most recent PPP terms would be placed 19th in the world.
**The ADB itself forecast an infrastructure gap in Asia of c. US$8 trillion up to 2020, whilst The Economist notes that the World Bank and ADB have only registered capital of US$223bn and US$160bn respectively, dedicated to sectors other than infrastructure and regions other than Asia.