Situating China’s role in the global development context, the white paper is striking for several reasons. The Chinese government’s priorities towards other countries outlined in the paper very much reflect China’s own development experience. These include:
- the crucial role of economic growth driving the development process
- the improvement of food security by increasing agricultural productivity and rural livelihoods
- and the importance of knowledge and technology transfer and of health and education systems.
Other areas, such as attention to climate issues and gender equality, seem more reflective of the issues that the Chinese government has recently shifted its focus on , rather than those that were the centre of attention during China’s own development process.
The role of economic growth is woven throughout the documents, but it does not take centre stage. The importance of improving infrastructure and access to energy, as well as of sustaining economic growth through industrialisation and the digital economy, are present among many other priorities. Here, again, industrialisation and infrastructure are very much drawn from China’s domestic experience, but the emphasis on green infrastructure and digital technology are new, emerging areas, of which we may see more in the future. Echoes of the Digital Silk Road and of ‘greening the Belt and Road’ are very strong here.
What really catches my eye is the role of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the document. The BRI is defined as a ‘major platform’ for China’s international development cooperation, and it is presented as a framework to expand aid to low- and middle-income countries. Initially, the BRI didn’t necessarily have this ‘developmental’ spin, but as we said elsewhere, it is a fluid concept and can be adapted to fit different needs.
All pillars of the BRI (infrastructure, trade, financial connectivity, policy and people-to-people exchanges) are seen as contributing to China’s international development objectives. The white paper provides lots of examples of ongoing programmes, from infrastructure building to training and donations, that work within both a development and a connectivity framework. The very idea of the BRI – the increased connectivity among countries for mutual benefits – can be found throughout the document, and it is difficult to disentangle it from the vision of development presented in the paper. To me, this indicates that the BRI will remain a framework for China’s foreign engagement in the future.