The US, China, and the AIIB:  From Zero-Sum Competition to Win-Win Cooperation?
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

The US, China, and the AIIB: From Zero-Sum Competition to Win-Win Cooperation?

Feb. 29, 2016  |     |  0 comments

On March 12, 2015, the White House issued a surprising public rebuke of the UK for agreeing to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as a founding member. This breach of the US-UK “special relationship” signaled the US’ unease with China’s growing influence as a rising power, as well as the US’ belief that “constant accommodation” was the wrong way to relate to China (Watt, Lewis, & Branigan, 2015). This suggests that the US sees its relationship with China over the AIIB through the lens of zero-sum logic, such that the gains in global influence China earns through the AIIB automatically translate into losses in global influence for the US. As we shall see, this is not the first time the US has seen a non-Western global initiative as a threat to its influence. In the case of the AIIB, the UK’s decision to join opened the way for other US allies to follow suit. Among the G-7 group of the world’s most industrialized economies, the UK was quickly joined by France, Germany and Italy as founding members of the AIIB, leaving out the US, Canada and Japan (“Japanese govt criticized,” 2015). By April 15, 2015, when the list of the AIIB’s founding members was finalized, 57 countries had joined the AIIB as founding members. While most were located in Asia, particularly in the regions along China’s “Belt and Road” development zones, the potential for synergistic economic growth attracted countries from outside these regions to join the AIIB as founding members, including Western Europe and South America (Dai, 2015; Chen & Yang, 2015). The sudden wave of last-minute applications to join the AIIB as founding members reportedly surprised China, especially given the hostility of the US to the AIIB (Perlez, 2015). This unexpected support shows that many countries don’t share the US’ understanding of the AIIB as representing a zero-sum competition for global influence, but that instead they share China’s view of the AIIB as representing a significant opportunity for win-win cooperation, with economic development for all participants as the primary goal.

Zero-Sum Logic

In a zero-sum game, a gain for one participant means a loss for another participant, and there is no net gain or loss for the game’s participants (Colman, 1995, p. 53). In the case of the US and its relations with the Asia-Pacific, its actions indicate that it sees certain situations in terms of zero-sum logic. In the late 1990s the US was opposed to an Asian-led initiative to create an Asian Monetary Fund, and succeeded in terminating the initiative. In that case and in the case of the AIIB, the US feared the loss of influence that it believed would result from multilateralism (El-Erian, 2015). Zero-sum logic can also be seen in the US’ exclusion of China from its proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership with Asia-Pacific economies (Derewlany, 2015). In addition, proposed reforms to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to grant a greater share of votes to China and other emerging economies have been blocked by the US Congress for the past 5 years (Summers, 2015; Weisman, 2015; “IMF members frustrated,” 2015). Zero-sum logic can also be perceived in policy analyses which view Beijing as establishing a parallel international structure, of which the AIIB is one component, to “challenge and constrain US and European predominance” (Heilmann, Rudolf, Huotari, & Buckow, 2014). As we shall see, Beijing’s actions with regard to the AIIB indicate it does not intend to use the AIIB to subvert the established international system of infrastructure financing, but instead seeks to use the AIIB to complement this existing system.

Ironically, by killing the Asian Monetary Fund, and by attempting to kill the AIIB, the US, whose rhetoric positions itself as the champion of global capitalism, is effectively maintaining a monopoly on the global market for infrastructure financing, whereas China is trying to open up this market and introduce competition with the introduction of the AIIB. As Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate in economics and former World Bank Chief Economist, points out, US opposition to the AIIB reflects the common phenomenon of firms wanting “competition everywhere except in their own industry” (Stiglitz, 2015). South Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang offers another perspective on this issue in his observation that, after having ascended the ladder of economic development, the US has effectively kicked away this ladder, and is forcing developing countries to achieve development through a method which it did not itself go through (Chang, 2003). In contrast, China seeks to share its actual development experience with other developing countries (Lim, 2015a). The AIIB is one of the mechanisms it has set up to achieve this. This reflects China’s understanding of the AIIB as a mechanism for win-win cooperation, which, unlike zero-sum logic, allows all the participants in the situation to achieve gains without penalty for anyone. In the case of the AIIB, the infrastructural development it finances can potentially stimulate economic growth throughout the region (Reynolds & Curran, 2015). Before we consider how the different founding members of the AIIB understand how they can partake in this possible growth, we will first consider how the AIIB fits in with the existing group of international financial institutions (IFIs).

The Global Infrastructure Financing Gap

Contrary to the paranoid suspicions that the AIIB seeks to replace existing IFIs like the Asian Development Bank (ADB), IMF, and the World Bank, Chinese officials like Jin Liqun, the secretary general of the AIIB’s interim secretariat, have repeatedly stated that the AIIB is intended to complement the service of these IFIs (“AIIB, a paradigm,” 2015). This can be seen in their different niches: while existing IFIs focus on poverty reduction, the AIIB is focused on infrastructure development (Chen, 2015b). Indonesian Finance Minister Bambang Brodjonegoro has elaborated on this point, noting that the AIIB will focus on large-scale infrastructure projects like airports, seaports, and power plants. This distinguishes the AIIB from the existing IFIs as the latter primarily focus on the financing of smaller-scale poverty reduction projects like irrigation systems and rural roads. This difference in focus means the AIIB is not in competition with these other IFIs, and instead complements their work (Otto, 2015). Indeed, in terms of their capitalization, it is clear that the AIIB was never intended to supplant the ADB, much less the IMF or World Bank. The AIIB will begin its operations with an initial sum of 50 billion USD in authorized capital. This will eventually increase to 100 billion USD (Huang, 2015). This is significantly less than the ADB which had 153 billion USD in capital at the end of 2014 (Reynolds & Curran, 2015).

The other important way the AIIB complements the existing IFIs is by helping meet the global gap in infrastructure financing. The World Bank has calculated that the world will need to invest at least US$57-67 trillion in infrastructure, with the needs of developing countries accounting for 37 percent of this. In addition, developing countries will need to spend US$1 trillion in annual infrastructure investments to meet the needs of their economic growth and urbanization (Campanella, 2015). Focusing on Asia, the ADB calculates that existing IFIs lack the capital to meet the infrastructural financing needs of developing countries in the region. While Asian countries need to spend US$800 billion each year to maintain their economic growth, the existing IFIs can only supply US$20 billion in financing. The AIIB is intended to help fill this financing gap (“AIIB, a paradigm,” 2015; “AIIB to bring,” 2015; “The Asian Infrastructure Investment,” 2015; “Transcript of Premier,” 2015).

International organizations have recognized the complementary role of the AIIB to their work. Jan Eliasson, the deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, has praised China’s ambitious “Belt and Road” regional development strategy and the AIIB for their role in helping developing countries achieve the UN’s development goals through infrastructure investment (“China’s Belt and,” 2015). World Bank president Jim Yong Kim has welcomed the AIIB’s role in reducing the global infrastructure financing shortfall, and confirmed that the World Bank is ready to cooperate with the AIIB, for example by sharing knowledge and experience. Kim also hopes that the AIIB will participate in the World Bank’s Global Infrastructure Facility, an instrument that facilitates the creation of public-private partnerships for infrastructure projects (Fernholz & Kim, 2015; “World Bank president,” 2015). IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde and ADB President Takehiko Nakao have likewise welcomed the AIIB and stated the willingness of their respective IFIs to cooperate with the AIIB on infrastructure financing, especially given the global infrastructure financing shortfall (Ivanovitch, 2015; Miller & Goh, 2015; “IMF chief Christine,” 2015).

Win-Win Cooperation

Rather than zero-sum competition, China views the AIIB as a key instrument for achieving win-win cooperation in Asia. By drawing on its foreign reserves and pooling together the resources of the other 56 founding members, the AIIB, and the “Belt and Road” projects that it will finance, represent for China important mechanisms to fulfill its responsibility as a global leader, and to assist its Asian neighbors on their paths to economic development (“Xinhua: Bias against,” 2015). Indeed, having enjoyed three decades of rapid economic growth, China seeks to help developing economies in Asia partake in economic growth, and in the process transform Asia into a “community of common destiny” (“AIIB, a paradigm,” 2015; “Full text of,” 2015).

While Asian countries need to spend US$800 billion each year to maintain their economic growth, the existing IFIs can only supply US$20 billion in financing. The AIIB is intended to help fill this financing gap.

The IMF has calculated that investment in infrastructure in developing countries has a significantly high multiplier effect on their economies, such that each dollar spent on infrastructure will stimulate an expansion of 1.6 dollars in the economy (Campanella, 2015). This can be observed in the economic growth stimulated in northern Vietnam by the construction of the Noi Bai-Lao Cai expressway. Developed as part of the ADB’s Kunming-Hai Phong Transport Corridor project, the expressway has increased trade between Vietnam and China, and generated an economic boost for northern Vietnam (“Transport connectivity,” 2015). The unexpected international support for the AIIB can hence be interpreted as a widespread desire among developing and developed economies to partake in the economic benefits of the “Belt and Road” infrastructure projects (Perlez, 2015). The “Belt and Road” promises synergistic economic growth by connecting the high growth regions of Western Europe and East Asia with the hinterland of Central Asia. The latest roadmap of the “Belt and Road” now shows the inclusion of the South Pacific in the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. In addition, the roadmap elaborates the Silk Road Economic Belt as having three lines of development: from China to Europe via Central Asia and Russia; from China to the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean Sea via Central and Western Asia; and from China to the Indian Ocean via Southeast and South Asia. Indeed, the “Belt and Road” extends from East Asia to Western Europe via the Balkans, Hungary, and the Greek port of Piraeus, which is partly managed by the Chinese firm COSCO. The full geographic reach of the “Belt and Road” encompasses 75 percent of the world’s economy, a market of 4.4 billion people, and a combined economy of US$21 trillion. According to economists, the countries along the “Belt and Road” will require infrastructure investment worth US$8 trillion (Chen, 2015a; Solana, 2015; “Joining the AIIB,” 2015). While the improved infrastructure offers economic gains for the receiving countries, the infrastructure construction projects represent significant business opportunities for economies in need of further stimulus. Let us now consider how some of the AIIB’s 57 founding members hope to benefit from their participation in the AIIB, and more broadly, in the “Belt and Road”:

Australia: Like the UK and the advanced economies of Western Europe, Australia broke with the US to join the AIIB as a founding member. The economic benefits from participation arise from the expected boost to Australia’s minerals sector, in particular the supply of iron and ore for the global infrastructure projects financed by the AIIB (“AIIB: Countries seek,” 2015).

India: Back in July 2014, India expressed its interest to be a founding member of the AIIB, as it saw the AIIB as a key source of financing for not just its planned infrastructure projects but also the development of its manufacturing sector. India has also sought to increase foreign direct investment (FDI) in its economy. After Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in 2014, Chinese FDI in India soared, and Sino-Indian trade reached US$70 billion in 2014, 70 times what it was in 2004. The Indian government hopes this trade will increase to US$100 billion in 2015, and especially seeks Chinese investment in Indian factories, thereby developing the Indian manufacturing sector (“India sets sights,” 2015).

Indonesia: The Indonesian government estimates that the synergistic alignment of China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road with Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s Global Maritime Axis initiative could add 0.3-0.5 percent growth to Indonesia’s GDP. The economic development of Indonesia’s less developed regions could also receive a boost from the construction of new seaports across the Indonesian archipelago (“Maritime Silk Road,” 2015). The AIIB, of which Indonesia is a founding member, is expected to be a key source of financing for this large investment in maritime infrastructure.

Israel: Due to rising anti-Semitism in Europe, the Israeli government has encouraged its business community to diversify their export markets, and many have turned to Asia. Israel’s position as a founding member of the AIIB is expected to create business opportunities for Israeli companies with the AIIB’s infrastructure projects (Cohen, 2015).

Kazakhstan: Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country, and seeks the development of its transportation infrastructure, in particular railways, roads, and airports, as well as the development of its energy infrastructure, to facilitate its economic growth. A key part of the Silk Road Economic Belt, Kazakhstan has launched its own program of infrastructure development. The AIIB, of which Kazakhstan is a founding member, is expected to provide much needed financing for these projects (“AIIB: Countries seek,” 2015).

Myanmar: Myanmar is one of the AIIB’s 32 Asian founding members, and like India was among the first to join. With poor infrastructure severely impeding economic growth, the Myanmar government urgently needs financing for the country’s infrastructure development (“AIIB: Countries seek,” 2015).

Singapore: Singapore’s participation in the AIIB as a founding member will allow it to share its expertise in economic development. Singapore’s corporations will also have opportunities to participate in the AIIB’s infrastructure projects (Loh, 2015).

South Korea: South Korea’s participation in the AIIB as a founding member has benefitted the country’s manufacturers like Histeel and Hanil Iron & Steel, with their stock prices increasing on investor anticipation that they will receive large orders from the AIIB’s infrastructure projects. The South Korean government also expects the AIIB’s projects to benefit companies in other economic sectors including communications, energy, and transportation (Kim & Yoo, 2015).

UAE: The UAE, one of the founding members of the AIIB, is positioning itself to be a key gateway on China’s “Belt and Road,” by highlighting its industrial free zones, like the Khalifa industrial zone in Abu Dhabi, and its maritime and air transportation hubs to construction and logistics corporations involved with “Belt and Road” projects. Chinese firms involved with Africa and West Asia are long familiar with UAE. With the upcoming “Belt and Road” projects, the UAE is positioning Dubai International Airport, the world’s busiest airport, and Dubai’s Jebel Ali seaport, the Middle East’s largest container port, as key logistics and transportation hubs between Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Asia. The “Belt and Road” also represents a key opportunity for the UAE to diversify from its oil economy (Bouyamourn, 2015; “UAE can play,” 2015).

New Normal

Like the other 56 founding members of the AIIB, China too expects to enjoy an economic boost from its participation. In 2013 China launched the “Belt and Road” development framework, of which the AIIB is a key financing instrument, as one of the new engines of growth for what the government has described as the country’s “new normal” of slower economic growth (Lim, 2015b). China’s past three decades of rapid growth was unprecedented and was the result of the government’s open attitude to “trial and error” experimentation with reforms. As Deng Xiaoping said, China had to “cross the river by feeling the stones.” The “Belt and Road” and its associated institutions like the AIIB can be seen as innovations implemented by Xi Jinping’s administration to lead China through the changed economic circumstances of the “new normal” (Sheng and Xiao, 2015). This economic slowdown has affected manufacturers across the country in regions like the Pearl River Delta. At present Guangdong’s imports and exports with the countries on the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road amount to less than 20 percent of total imports and exports. This suggests that Chinese manufacturers will have to adjust their businesses to serve the countries located along the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road in order to take advantage of the new opportunities afforded by the “Belt and Road” (Hsu, 2015). These opportunities are not insignificant. Chinese investment firm Minsheng Securities estimates that the “Belt and Road” will generate RMB1 trillion in investment spending, with at least 30 percent of this spent in China, thereby adding 0.3-0.4 percent growth to China’s GDP (Cai, 2015). However, Chinese companies will not have a free ride, as it is the AIIB’s Board of Directors that will decide on investment projects, not the management. This means Chinese companies will have to compete against their global competitors for the opportunity to work on AIIB-funded infrastructure projects (Kim & Yoo, 2015).

The "Belt and Road" and its associated institutions like the AIIB can be seen as innovations implemented by Xi Jinping's administration to lead China through the changed economic circumstances of the "new normal".

The “Belt and Road” is anticipated to create business opportunities in numerous sectors of the economy. China’s slumping construction machinery industry is one of these, and the “Belt and Road” is expected to boost exports of heavy machinery from the present volume of US$19 billion to US$54 billion in 2020 (“‘Belt and Road’ to prop," 2015). The energy sector is another. Jinko Solar, a Chinese solar power company, is one of the Chinese companies which have aligned their businesses with the opportunities provided by the “Belt and Road.” Jinko is investing in the energy sectors of “Belt and Road” countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia, Jordan in the Middle East, and Thailand in Southeast Asia (“‘Belt and Road’ to energize,” 2015). Transportation is also a key sector. CRRC Corporation, the Chinese rail construction giant that will be formed by the merger of China’s two biggest rail construction companies, is expected to be competitive against the world’s leading corporations in the rail construction sector, including Alstom, Bombardier, General Electric, Kawasaki, and Siemens. These top corporations are expected to bid for rail construction projects in the “Belt and Road,” including rail connections between China and Southeast Asian countries like Laos and Thailand. The rail sector in particular has become a bright light in China’s “new normal,” with Chinese manufacturers exporting rolling stock, railway equipment, and trains to meet transportation demand around the world, including from overseas “Belt and Road” rail projects (Kung, 2015). The “Belt and Road” has already shown early signs of the fulfillment of its economic promise in the form of increased trade, with bilateral trade between China and the “Belt and Road” countries reaching RMB1.45 trillion, or one quarter of China’s total trade, in the first quarter of 2015. China’s exports to the “Belt and Road” countries rose by 10 percent, compared with the 4.9 percent increase in China’s total exports during this period (“‘Belt and Road’ to energize,” 2015).

Preparations for Launch

The AIIB is scheduled to commence operations at the end of 2015. A lot of work will have to be done in the meantime. Apart from recruiting its managerial team and staff, China and the other founding members will also have to establish the charter and work out the AIIB’s rules (“AIIB scouts globally,” 2015; “AIIB preparation,” 2015). The rule-making function will be guided by the distribution of voting shares among the founding members. According to Jin Liqun, the secretary general of the AIIB’s interim secretariat, voting shares will be allocated based on geography as well as GDP. Asian countries will receive 75 percent of the shares, and non-Asian countries the remaining 25 percent. The share allocation will then be based on each country’s GDP. China hence will be the AIIB’s largest shareholder. The geographical division reflects the AIIB’s desire for the advanced economies of the West to share not their capital but rather their technical experience in managing complex corporate entities like the AIIB, thereby ensuring the AIIB adheres to world-class standards of governance (Huang, 2015; Miller & Goh, 2015; “The Asian Infrastructure,” 2015). The Asian-centric distribution of voting shares will also help the AIIB avoid a recurrence of the situation in the ADB where, despite its Asian focus, the US and Europe have predominant influence (Otto, 2015).

While the opportunity for countries to join the AIIB as founding members has closed, the bank is still open to receiving ordinary members. Unlike the founding members who enjoy the right to create the AIIB’s governance and operational rules, the ordinary members have voting rights but are excluded from the rule-making process (“Iran, UAE become,” 2015). Of the G-7, the US, Canada and Japan missed out on the opportunity to participate in the AIIB as founding members. Japan reportedly has interest in joining the AIIB as an ordinary member, with a possible contribution of US$1.5 billion (“Japan hints interest,” 2015). Likewise, Canada is actively considering joining the AIIB (Curry, 2015). Following the unexpected surge in international support for the AIIB, including support from the ADB, IMF, and World Bank, the US has softened its initial hostility to the AIIB. US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has stated that the US is now open to welcoming the AIIB if it, as China has repeatedly confirmed, complements the work of the existing IFIs and follows world-class standards of governance (Chung, 2015). China, in turn, continues to offer the US the opportunity to join the AIIB. Jin Liqun and Chinese Finance Minister Lou Jiwei have stated that the US is welcome to join the AIIB anytime (Chen, 2015b; “China always welcomes,” 2015).


This paper was originally published in Eurasia Review (Lim, 2015c). Since that time of writing, the AIIB has finally been launched. Speaking at the inauguration ceremony of the AIIB on January 16, 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping noted that the new IFI will promote medium- to long-term development in the Asian region through the financing, including the channeling of private investment, into the necessary infrastructural development that will increase regional connectivity and economic integration (“Full text of,” 2016). The AIIB will commence operations in the second quarter of 2016, and is expected to issue loans worth US$10-15 billion per annum for its first five years of operation. AIIB President Jin Liqun noted that the AIIB is already preparing a number of standalone and several co-financed projects with other IFIs (Wong, 2016).


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