Global public goods from China constructive to int’l order

By CHEN ZHE / 09-07-2018 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Headquarters of the AIIB  Photo: FILE

As a hot area of research, global governance has provided many new fields and topics for academic study as well as plans to help the international community cope with various challenges. 
Since the start of the 21st century, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis, the global governance deficit has become increasingly serious. As current governance mechanisms and arrangements are inadequate to resolve global issues, countries around the world are looking forward to new guidance and public goods in global governance. 

Objectively, this requires cross-disciplinary studies of global governance, including international politics, to come up with a new, effective knowledge supply and array of solutions, thereby preparing to grapple with complicated, changing difficulties and challenges.
Limitations of current studies
Generally, international arrangements, mechanisms or systems that apply to or serve only one region and whose costs are borne by countries within that region are called “regional international public goods.” Accordingly, those serving the world with costs shared by countries around the world are “global international public goods.” With the acceleration of economic globalization and regional integration, regional international public goods are differentiated as “intra-regional” and “inter-regional.”

International public goods provided by China are distinctive from the above definition. For example, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has been offering services to non-members, though its costs are borne by countries in the region. And the services provided by the self-supported Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) have been both regional and global. Therefore new international public goods shouldn’t be defined simply by “global” or “regional.”

 Existing achievements of research on international public goods focus mainly on supply, system, and three classical models—the tragedy of the commons, the prisoner’s dilemma and the collective action problem. Most of the studies have been started from economic perspectives and basically grounded upon the experience of Western developed capitalist countries post-WWII, focusing on concrete topics.

 For instance, Western scholar of international political economy Robert Gilpin argued that there is rarely an actor willing to cover the costs of public goods. However, international public goods supplied by China show that the country is the “rare actor,” which welcomes all countries to “take a free ride.” This reflects how the field needs deeper, further research, while indicating that to the majority of developing countries, actively participating in global governance is necessary to make the governance system more equitable and just.
Change in China’s role
China’s supply of international public goods can be divided into three stages. The first stage spans from the founding of the People’s Republic of China to the end of the 1980s, when the nation gradually integrated into the mainstream international system. 

In the second stage, from the end of the 1980s to 2012, China participated more in the United Nations-centered global governance system, fusing into the mainstream international system. In general, it was a participant and follower in the global governance system and mechanism, while attempting to provide international public goods, such as the SCO. 

The third stage, since 2012, has seen China actively offering public goods to the international community. As the current system of international public goods fails to meet realistic needs and as the supply of new public goods is hard to sustain, China has taken a key step as a responsible major country, proposing new international public goods like the “Belt and Road” initiative, which fully indicates that the country has deeply integrated into the mainstream international system. 

In addition, China’s supply of international public goods exists in the following three contexts. 
The first is the evolution of the world pattern. Despite ongoing discussions on the new type of China-US major-country relationship, the trend toward world multi-polarization remains unchanged. Affected by the sluggish world economy, some countries in the Asia-Pacific region have experienced dramatic political changes, social transformations and economic downturns. The underlying risks are closely related to the development of countries, profoundly impacting each other’s politics, economy and society.

 Nonetheless, the overall situation has steadily turned for the better. Maintaining world peace and promoting joint development constitute the common strategic orientation of most countries.

 Second, our planet’s environmental boundaries are going to be transgressed. In 2009, Swedish scholar Johan Rockstrom put forward the “planetary boundaries” concept, raising the possibility that collective actions by mankind will trigger tipping points, risking abrupt and irreversible consequences for human communities and ecological systems.

 There are nine boundaries: climate change, biodiversity loss, biochemical, ocean acidification, land use, freshwater, ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosols and chemical pollution. If the boundaries are crossed, humans are likely to lose their home planet.

 According to the research by Rockstrom and his team, the emission of greenhouse gases will make the planet two degrees centigrade warmer by the end of the century based on current human industrial and social activities. If no control is enforced, extreme climate disasters will become more frequent and catastrophic. Hence climate change might be the most important issue of international politics in the 21st century.

 The third context is the reshaping of the global economic structure and rules due to a new round of technological revolution. From 2008 till now, the world economy has been mired in recession. Low growth will be the norm of global economic development over a relatively long period of time. Meanwhile, revolutionary technologies represented by artificial intelligence, block chain, big data and cloud computing will significantly reshape economic structures and rules, causing tremendous changes to the operation and governance models of traditional society.
Chinese international public goods
Facing the plight of the international public goods supply, China has proposed such ideas as a “new type of major-country relationship” and a “community with a shared future for mankind.” Moreover, it has built real-world platforms like the “Belt and Road” initiative, and established organizations including the SCO and the AIIB.

 The SCO was the first such organization founded. Furthermore, since 2012, China’s supply of international public goods has been characterized by “idea first and organization second.” Therefore, China’s movement has not been arbitrary or contingent, but well-planned and practical.

As China’s participation in improving the international public goods supply system brings new cases in practice, existing global governance theories will face challenges, and the new cases must be tested by classical theories.

 For example, China-related cases interpret “international public goods” from new angles, proving that free-riding is not the main obstacle impeding collective cooperation and effective communication. It takes time, as well as concerted effort and wisdom, to test whether the international public goods provided by China can avoid the tragedy of the commons, the prisoner’s dilemma and the collective action problem.

Judging from the general trend, there are increasing positive forces supporting countries around the world to advance together and achieve mutual benefits. Peace and development remain the themes of the contemporary world. As the initiator of new international public goods, China has endogenous impetuses. Its strategy of supplying international public goods is constructive to the current global order.

Chen Zhe is from the Institute of World Economics and Politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

​(edited by MI RONG)