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China’s role as a provider of global public goods growing

CAO DEJUN | 2017-03-23 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

According to the white paper China’s Foreign Aid (2014) issued by the Information Office of the State Council, China’s foreign assistance has continued to grow. In addition to complete projects, goods and materials, which were the main forms of China’s foreign assistance, technical and human resources development cooperation also saw remarkable increases. China has played a constructive role in promoting international development and cooperation.


In an official statement on global governance, China announced its commitment to playing its role as a major responsible country while providing global public goods that match its international status. It is necessary to adequately assess the advantages and disadvantages of China as a rising power in the supply of global public goods as well as competition and cooperation with other major countries. This is a prerequisite for China to be actively involved in global governance.

As an emerging nation, China has long enjoyed late-mover advantages, greatly benefiting from globalization. It has introduced modern technologies, drawn on international management experience, and learned from the market economy system and free trade rules while profiting from freedom of navigation and a stable international security situation. Nevertheless, chaos and unrest from time to time have posed a threat to the current global order. In this context, the international community expects China to provide more global public goods now that its national strength has been significantly enhanced.


Weakened influence of US
After the World War II, the Bretton Woods system established under the leadership of the United States helped maintain the stability and effectiveness of the postwar economic order. The monetary system brought seigniorage revenues for the United States while enhancing its soft power and international reputation.

However, after the end of the Cold War, the United States was distracted by traditional security problems. In particular, its unilateral action following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in 2001 was a sign of declining multilateralism. American unilateralism—exemplified by its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court—has exerted a negative impact on the supply of global public goods.

According to statistics by the US Department of Defense, the ratio of expenditure the United States spent on global public goods, including international development and humanitarian aid, to spending on national defense dropped from 6.5 percent in 1965 to about 3 percent in 1996. In 2008, spending on public goods accounted for only 2.6 percent of the defense budget.

Moreover, the United States tended to use the public goods solely provided by the country for its own purpose, raising doubts about its motives. International organizations under the Bretton Woods system have been stamped with Western-centric ideologies and neoliberalism. Therefore, China should inject a new driving force for global governance.


Expectation for emerging nations
In the process of global governance, major countries have increasingly become service providers instead of contending for a dominant role. After the outbreak of the 2008 financial crisis, many developed countries became bogged down by internal affairs, weakening their capability and willingness to provide new global public goods. By contrast, emerging developing countries, including China, are increasingly participating in the global order. Worldwide expectations and support for China to play a significant role in addressing global affairs lay a foundation for its participation in the supply of global public goods.


Increasing demand
In addition, the supply of public goods lags far behind increasing international demand. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed his anxiety over the loss of hundreds of billions of dollars each year caused by insufficient supply of public goods. The shortage results from the weakened enthusiasm of suppliers as well as the imbalance, overuse, destruction and underutilization of public goods. This provides room for China to shoulder its responsibilities as a major country.

Moreover, the resolution to rejuvenate the Chinese nation gives the country an impetus to participate in global affairs. Since ancient times, traditional Chinese culture has put high value on the idea that the world is equally shared by all, which is consistent with the notion of global governance.

As the second-largest economy, the largest trading nation, the country with the highest amount of foreign-exchange reserves and the biggest buyer of primary products across the world, China shows growing willingness to participate in the supply of global public goods. The motivation can be attributed to internal factors, such as changing values and the need to protect national interests overseas, as well as to external factors, including the shift of international power, the shortage of global public goods and increasing expectations from the international community.


Challenges, problems
China’s provision of global public goods is essential to establishing a community with a common destiny and a mission of the times. It should be noted that it faces various challenges and pressures.

Above all, uneven development in the country will hinder its supply of global public goods. There is too much emphasis on macroeconomic targets that leads to a misunderstanding of the current development stage. China should recognize and evaluate its national strength and development situation.

On one hand, it should be strategically patient because many countries around the world still need time to accept and adapt to China’s rise. On the other hand, it should not overestimate its strategic status. It should be aware that a nation whose economic aggregate ranks among the highest around the world is not necessarily an economic power and that an economic power is not necessarily a world power.

According to the traditional definition, a global public good is non-rivalrous and nonexclusive. This means the consumption of the good by anyone does not reduce the quantity available to other agents, and that it is impossible to prevent anyone from consuming that good. However, such a definition has neglected competition and cooperation among suppliers.

It is, in fact, a fierce competition to contend for the right to provide global public goods. From the start, the scramble for global leadership was based on the possession of such tangible resources as land, minerals and raw materials. In the era of globalization, countries compete to control intangible resources, including trading rights, discourse power, the rights of space and the Internet.

If a shift of global leadership occurs, there will be obvious conflicts between hegemonic and rising powers in traditional fields and little conflict in emerging fields. To realize a peaceful rise in the 21st century, China should keep up with international scientific and economic development trends while opening up new areas of competition and endeavoring to get a head start.

Actors involved in the supply of global public goods tend to be diversified. China still lacks discourse power in an international context. With the further progress of globalization, non-state actors have emerged and participated in agenda setting as well as in formulating, supervising and implementing rules. This is closely related to economic liberalization, technological diffusion and decentralization of knowledge authority in the process of globalization.

Moreover, there is not enough public-spirited education domestically. China lacks discourse power in enacting global rules, and in putting forward proposals and initiatives. It is urgent to establish a discourse system of its own on the basis of learning, understanding and accepting international norms.

As a result of the negative impacts of globalization, China also needs the assistance of global public goods. Globalization has added uncertainties and unknown risks, posing challenges to some extent to most developing countries, including China. As the largest developing country, China has long faced various governance pressures as well as internal and external disadvantages, making it more vulnerable to the influence of globalization.


Though consumption of public goods is non-rivalrous and nonexclusive, there is competition for the supply of public goods around the world. To win recognition from other countries or to promote regional leadership or global status, many major countries resort to the common practice of proactively providing public goods. Rising and hegemonic powers may contend for the right to provide public goods in the same area if the public goods provided by them are homogeneous.

Chinese scholars pointed out that there exists competition geographically and in different fields. During the Cold War, there was geopolitical tension between powers in the Eastern Bloc, comprising the Soviet Union and its satellite states, and powers in the Western Bloc, including the United States, its NATO allies and others. The United States and the Soviet Union went on the offensive against the intermediate zone and the other bloc while ensuring the supply of public goods in their respective spheres. For public goods of different fields, suppliers have different comparative advantages, each attempting to broaden the scope of public goods they are able to provide.

In the eyes of the United States, however, the more public goods China provides, the greater threat it will pose to American hegemony. It launched the “return to Asia” strategy in an attempt to contain China’s increasing global influence. In fact, there are different and common interests between China as a rising power and traditional great powers. And the important task for China is to learn to coordinate its interests with global interests.


Cao Dejun is from the School of International Studies at Peking University.