UK-China collaboration on global development: alternative golden era?

29 October 2015

The UK is buzzing with last week’s Chinese State visit, and the raft of business deals signed between President Xi Jinping and the British government in the so-called new ‘golden era’ of economic co-operation. There has been plenty of pomp and pageantry, and perhaps less protest than one might have expected given some of the more controversial issues at stake – from steel and nuclear power investments to China’s position on minority human rights.

David Cameron and President Xi, The President of The People's Republic of China, witness the signing of major trade and investment agreements Downing Street. Justine Greening, Secretary of State for International Development and Minister Gao Hucheng sign an agreement witnessed by the Prime Minister and President Xi. Credit: Number 10 - Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Less prominent in the mainstream media spotlight have been the parallel discussions about China-UK cooperation in international development. These too have led to deals – Secretary of State Justine Greening has signed agreement on a UK-China fund for African development and a UK-China development partnership between DFID and the Chinese State Council's Development Research Centre (DRC).

With the recent launch of the Global Goals (formerly described as the Sustainable Development Goals), this is a vital moment for international development.

Is strengthened UK-China international development collaboration the true golden era?

Positively, these alternative agreements are about China and the UK thinking not just about what they can gain economically from each other, but about looking outwards together towards global responsibilities and opportunities. They are also about knowledge and mutual learning, not just profit and power.

Yet Chinese and UK contexts and experiences are deeply contrasting. These opportunities and challenges have been key underpinnings in the exciting week IDS colleagues and I spent engaging with the Chinese visit in activities that build on the long history of IDS partnerships with Chinese institutions, and the MoU that we signed with the DRC in Beijing last April.

Different perspectives on the Global Goals

The UK-China Development Forum held on the 22nd October at Chatham House brought together leading Chinese and British development experts to showcase existing collaborations, and explore opportunities for the future. It followed a Parliamentary event that IDS convened the previous day, in which key members and advisors of our Centre for Rising Powers and Global Development discussed development priorities with the International Development Select Committee.

The Global Goals framed the Forum and the four key areas agreed for the next stage of the UK-China development partnership:

  • Economic growth and employment
  • Global health
  • Disaster management
  • Women’s empowerment.

Yet interesting contrasts emerged in broader interpretations of the Global Goals agenda. While DFID prioritises this as the next stage in the challenge to end extreme poverty and tackle climate change, a senior Chinese spokesperson emphasised the central values of equality, health and dignity – aligning with China’s new emphases in development on human-centred perspectives, democracy and social justice.

China's "new normal" and "One Road, One Belt" strategy

At first sight this seems a surprising line of thought given China’s domestic development model – rapid& urban and infrastructure-led growth that has lifted 600 million people out of poverty, but with less apparent regard for the social – let alone justice-oriented – dimensions of development.

But it better fits China's ‘new normal’, with more focus on lower but quality growth, and on addressing social and environmental consequences - from environmental degradation and pollution to the children and elderly ‘left behind’ in rural areas and the women faced with tough choices over paid employment and care. Indeed across the forum’s sessions – on delivering sustainable economic development, on policy coherence for development, and on building effective and accountable institutions for an inclusive society – Chinese participants were remarkably reflective about the failures, as well as successes, of their domestic policy experiences and experiments.

This made for productive discussion of China’s role in contributing to international development challenges, whether in Africa or the Asian countries prioritized prioritised in its ‘One Road, One Belt’ strategy.

Much has focused on infrastructure, extractive industries, and transfer of technologies, for example in agriculture

But there seems to be growing reflection on the importance of social and governance issues in these engagements, and on questions about how key elements of China's domestic development model – such as industrial employment in enclave export-processing zones – might be adapted to, rather than transferred wholesale, to very different national and local contexts.

The forum also discussed global institutions and governance. The new Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (in which the UK is an early investor) and BRICS banks represent not just important new lenders on the development finance scene, but also challenges to the Bretton Woods Institutions – including the World Bank and IMF – to consider reforms needed to meet the challenges of a multi-polar world.

Thinking together – new Centre for Centre for International Knowledge on Development (CIKD)

The Forum also formally launched a Centre for Centre for International Knowledge on Development (CIKD) within the DRC. The 1000+ staff DRC has long been responsible for advising the government on China's domestic development, but is now expanding its international reach and remit.

With initial DFID support, CIKD is seeking to build the capacity of DRC staff through interaction with international experts on development; to support research on lessons from China's development experience, key development issues in low-income countries, and the impact of China’s policies and activities; and to communicate development evidence and advice to low-income countries, aid agencies and the Government of China.

Our IDS-DRC partnership is partly geared to supporting CIKD’s development and work, while we have also become a founding member of the Silk Road Think Tanks Network which the DRC has established and will launch in Madrid this week.

President Li and DRC delegation visits IDS

In this context, a large DRC delegation led by its President Li Wei visited us at IDS on Friday.

DRC Chinese delegation visit to IDS in October 2015. Credit: R. Coleman - IDS

An intense roundtable shared many ideas for collaborative research – from questions of finance, agriculture, and the management of rapid health system change and green transformations, to comparative experiences of rapid urbaniszation between China and Africa. These are all live issues across IDS research clusters, in our Centre for Rising Powers and Global Development and the STEPS Centre, and we were pleased to find so much positive mutual interest and opportunity to think and work together amongst the very engaged, reflective DRC group.

DRC leaders were also very interested in our approach to ‘engaged excellence’ and mobiliszing knowledge for development – and in how IDS is governed and operates as an independent research/policy engagement institution. Indeed the discussion here – both in the Institute and informally over a visit to our 12th century (but embarrassingly young by Chinese standards!) castle town of Lewes – was perhaps the most intense of all.

China is clearly taking very seriously its future role in ideas, as well as action, on the global development stage, and considering how CIKD could take its place as a think tank. While many differences in our contexts and experiences remain, after this week I'm even more positive about the prospects for mutual learning between IDS and our Chinese partners, in ways that align with our broader values and goals.

We're much looking forward to the next steps.

Images: Justine Greening and Minister Gao Hucheng (Number 10); DRC delegation and IDS colleagues with President Li Wei and IDS Director Melissa Leach fourth and fifth from left in the front row (R. Coleman - IDS).

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