Development, International relations | The Pacific

29 January 2021

China has taken an increasing interest in trilateral aid with other developed states, however, geopolitical tensions are putting this initiative at risk, Denghua Zhang writes.

Six decades ago, American political scientist Han Morgenthau wrote: ‘a policy of foreign aid is no different from diplomatic or military policy or propaganda. They are all weapons in the political armory of the nation.’ This applies to Chinese foreign aid.

China is the world’s largest emerging donor. Its fast-growing aid program has contributed to China’s expanding influence in the Global South and complicated the international aid system, which was dominated by developed countries. 

Two questions arise amidst this changing development landscape. Can China work together with traditional donors to provide aid, and in what ways might this happen? 

China’s third white paper on foreign aid, released by China in January 2021, provides some insights. The document examines Chinese aid between 2013 and 2018 and announces the future directions, including trilateral aid cooperation. 

New research shows that China has been testing trilateral cooperation as a new model to deliver aid. By partnering with selected United Nations (UN) organisations and traditional donor states, China hopes this new model can complement its traditional bilateral model.

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There are two main reasons behind this change. Strategically, trilateral cooperation serves to strengthen China’s image internationally. Practically, it brings new opportunities for China to learn from these partners to improve its aid delivery.  

Thus far, China has been selective of traditional partners and the areas for cooperation. The importance of bilateral relationships to China’s diplomacy is a major determinant. For example, China regards its relationship with the United States as one of its most important. In this sense, China conducted the US–China–Timor-Leste agricultural project between 2013 and 2014, hoping it would enrich the broader China-United States relationship. 

China piloted trilateral aid projects with Australia and New Zealand during the same period. Between 2013 and 2018, China also tested the approach with the United Kingdom, Portugal, and UN organisations, especially the United Nations Development Programme.

China has so far focused its trilateral cooperation on less politically sensitive areas, such as agriculture, public health, natural disaster relief, and renewable energy.

The Chinese Government has developed its own policies and practices regarding trilateral cooperation, which focus on a cautious openness to aid cooperation. However, Beijing has not been actively pushing this new way of delivering aid. The government has dealt with trilateral aid proposals on a case-by-case basis and given preference to UN organisations and ‘trustworthy’ traditional donor states.

In the new white paper, the Chinese Government indicated that it will continue to pilot trilateral aid cooperation. This will create opportunities for interested traditional donor states and recipient countries.

As China is expected to play a more important role in international development, trilateral cooperation could serve as a new platform for traditional donors to engage with China and learn about Chinese aid. Improved aid coordination between China and these donors could also bring benefits for recipient countries, including reducing duplication and promoting localisation.

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However, there are at least two obstacles for trilateral cooperation between traditional donors and China. First, funding arrangements could be a tense issue. At present, China is willing to provide funding or co-funding for cooperation with UN organisations. By contrast, it only agrees to self-fund its part of the trilateral project with traditional donors or make non-funding contributions, such as providing expertise and staff to these projects. 

As a Chinese aid expert told this author in 2018: “China is not [very] willing to contribute funding for trilateral projects with traditional donors… China’s budget earmarked for trilateral cooperation is also small.”

Therefore, it could be difficult for China to contribute to a pooled fund to be jointly managed by China and traditional donors.

Second, the period of 2013-2018 covered by the white paper preceded the growing geostrategic competition between China and traditional donors that has taken place since 2018. Increased rivalry will undoubtedly hinder more trilateral cooperation.  

Under these circumstances, more effort is needed by all parties if they want to push for trilateral cooperation. For recipient countries, taking the lead and presenting well-researched proposals to China and traditional donors would greatly increase the success rate of these proposals in China. 

As for China and traditional donors, they will need to increase engagement at all levels, including at leaders’ summits, consultations between foreign affairs/aid officials, and meetings between working-level officials on the ground in recipient countries. Equally if not more important, all sides need to honour the spirit of commitment, trust, and respect.

Given that trilateral aid cooperation is a relatively new concept, especially for China, patience is needed for negotiations and implementation.

Public health could be a good sector in which to kick-start trilateral aid cooperation. While donor countries have competed for influence during the COVID-19 pandemic by providing grants, medical supplies, and pledging vaccines support to recipient countries, there is also a need for greater coordination and cooperation between donors. 

The pandemic provides an opportunity for all governments to rethink how they can provide reliable and affordable public goods to the populations within their borders and beyond. This presents an opportunity for trilateral aid cooperation.

Supporting recipient countries such as Pacific Island states in the management of COVID-19 and the post-crisis recovery could be a good start. Learning how to better share information, and prevent and respond to future health emergencies, demands greater coordination and cooperation from China, traditional donors, and recipient countries. If trilateral aid cooperation can be a pathway to achieve this, it will serve everyone’s interests.

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