Banking on Acceptance: China and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank

The Beijing-headquartered Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) opened in January 2016, establishing itself as the newest member of the multilateral development bank community. Commonly billed as “China’s answer to the World Bank,” the AIIB aims to invest in infrastructure and other productive sectors across the Asian continent. Concerns about China using the AIIB as a front for its strategic and economic objectives plagued the bank’s planning stages and initial months of operations, but such concerns were difficult to substantiate before the bank had funded any projects. The recent announcement of the AIIB’s first four funding projects suggest that, while China is using the bank to its advantage, it is also maintaining the bank’s legitimacy as a multilateral institution.

China officially proposed a multilateral infrastructure bank for Asia in 2013, an announcement that received an unenthusiastic response from the United States and Japan. Both countries were concerned that founding a new bank, not necessarily beholden to “international standards of governance and transparency,” could provide China with the opportunity to exert disproportionate influence over Asia’s development agenda.

These concerns were substantiated in 2015 when it was announced that China would be the largest stakeholder in the bank, with a 26% voting share, after funding $29.78 billion of the AIIB’s $100 billion capital. Given that major changes to the bank, including capital increases or alterations to the governing structure, must be approved by a supermajority totaling 75% of the voting share, China effectively possesses an informal veto power over many AIIB decisions. However, Beijing has been keen to assuage worries of Chinese dominance. The chief of the bank stated that China will not seek to increase its voting share – in fact, he alluded that China’s voting share may decrease over time as more members join. In addition, China will not possess a formal veto power, a stark contrast to the United States’ formal veto over structural changes within the World Bank.

That said, Chinese interests were clearly supported when the AIIB began to consider development project proposals, the first of which were approved in June 2016. They included revitalizing slums in Indonesia and upgrading the power grid in Bangladesh, as well as constructing and improving roads in Pakistan and Tajikistan. While these projects will undoubtedly benefit China, they also show that AIIB’s reputation as a multilateral bank will not be undermined to serve solely Chinese interests.

To understand how the AIIB benefits China, it is necessary to look at Chinese development in the larger context of the country’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. Inspired by the ancient Silk Road, OBOR seeks to connect China with trading partners through Asia, the Middle East, and Africa via an “economic land belt” and a “maritime road” that links Chinese ports to those of other countries.

The AIIB, as a formal investment institution with international support to increase regional prosperity, is partly a way to fund OBOR. It is therefore unsurprising that the AIIB’s projects for Pakistan and Tajikistan are directly related to OBOR.  Both projects call for the construction and improvement of roads, which is critical to trade between China and other Asian countries.

But consistency with OBOR’s objectives does not mean that these projects are simply moves by China to increase its regional influence. Rather, the AIIB has chosen to co-finance all of these projects, except the one for Bangladesh, with other multilateral agencies including the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), and the World Bank. Co-financing mitigates the risk that the young AIIB and its stakeholders are accepting and eases concerns in the international community regarding the transparency and governance standards of the AIIB. Cooperating with respected multilateral agencies ensures that the AIIB will, at least for these projects, comply with accepted international standards. This compliance strengthens the bank’s standing among multilateral institutions.

Still, some are convinced that the AIIB is prioritizing Chinese interests at the expense of regional prosperity. In particular, there is concern that AIIB rejected a project for India in favor of a road construction project for its strategic ally, Pakistan. However, the president of the ADB, which is the lead financer of the project, stated that there are “so many projects in the list in many countries. It just happened that the Pakistan project was approved first because it could be done quickly.” That this statement comes from the ADB strongly suggests that financing for the Pakistan project was not a case of the AIIB favoring China’s regional allies. Given Japan’s tenuous relationship with China, the Japan-backed ADB would have little incentive to finance a project in Pakistan if it believed that it would solely aide Chinese interests.

The AIIB is increasingly perceived as an institution that complements other development efforts, as evidenced by co-financing and support from other multilateral banks and the membership of other global powers such as Australia and Germany. Such acceptance is beneficial to both the multilateral development industry and China. Increased membership could augment the capacity of the AIIB to contribute to infrastructure development, leading to greater prosperity for China and the rest of the continent. Such a prospect is certainly motivation for the AIIB to continue to seek success not only in its project outcomes, but also in the eyes of the global development community.