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Opinion

Development cooperation in the pandemic era – China and the West

Published on 13 January 2021

Image of Jing Gu

Jing Gu

Research Fellow, Centre Director

Global development is at a turning point. We need to recognise the differences and competition between regions and countries while still promoting development cooperation.

Global challenges require global responses and local solutions. In an international environment of increasing tension and rivalry in the struggle for natural resources, in an ideological conflict over models of governance – and over increasing security anxieties generated by possibilities of technological surveillance – the need for policy-oriented research networking across borders could not be more essential.

The past year has highlighted the ways in which prospects for global development cooperation continued to be shaped by geopolitics, global health, and the global economy. 2020 saw the unexpected global health crisis caused by Covid-19 and global economic downturn. Further, China’s position at the global trade and climate change negotiations emphasised the changing balance of economic and political power in the global economy.

China’s impressive economic growth and increasing development activities overseas, particularly in the African continent, have spurred intense debate over its role as a rising power in international development. China’s global engagement with the developing world is changing rapidly and fundamentally. These fast-growing activities present both internal and external challenges for China and the world. How to address these challenges and knowledge gaps will not only determine China’s internal governance on development issues, but also its external activities and behaviours that are now having a profound global impact.

China is viewed in some Western perspectives as both a threat and as a valuable potential partner in development cooperation. However, differences between Western and Chinese conceptions of governance and development have complicated cooperation and understanding of China’s development policy and practices. The Covid-19 global health crisis became an invisible contesting ground beyond the immediate challenges being played out in response to the unfolding pandemic. On the one hand, China hoped to present the best possible image of its country to the world as it rolled out its most intensive and largest-scale emergency humanitarian assistance mission since 1949. On the other hand, the West hoped the pressure from the international development community could help to change China, recasting its image to align more closely to Western norms of governance and democracy. Further and deeper knowledge of these differences is needed, in order to evaluate their implications for low-income countries, and for potential trilateral cooperation.

How can the West cooperate while competing with China?

It has become customary, on the European side, to categorise European-Chinese relations as based on three types of relationship: partnership – where specific interests can be balanced and win-win is possible; competition – where market forces are accepted as valid determiners of outcomes; and strategic rivalry – where each side tries to outdo the other, displacing the other on the international plane with its own model of governance, bringing with that triumph a zero sum relationship in a broad range of areas.

Where does a global striving for sustainable development find its place in the face of these categories?

The answer is to leave behind all of these conventional ways of thinking and to recognise that development concerns overcome group/national egotism – through a common dedication to the ideal of furthering the welfare of those nations and regions which are in danger of being left behind in global development. Even partnership to balance interests is not enough. It is not a matter of individual aid providers gaining equal benefits for their interests by helping needy countries to progress. Instead, it is by focusing themselves jointly on the third parties they wish to assist, in dialogue with the latter, that there is a real hope of fruitful outcomes, where all grow and are enhanced from enjoying progress together, in a triangular relationship: the West, China and the global South.

How can this be achieved?

Mutual trust is essential. It is achieved through a continuing process of exchanging ideas, jointly developing projects, jointly implementing them, and jointly reviewing the results – all in partnership and dialogue with our friends in the global South – that we grow to understand and trust one another. The close personal contact and experience of working together over longer periods and in varieties of circumstances enables us to break down imaginary barriers of interests, and competitive rivalries, as we develop (in triangular relationships of the UK, China and the global South) concrete, empirical, and above all pragmatic experiences of the real needs for development.

Building cooperation with trust

There is a pressing need for people to build up the capacity to better understand and better participate in global and national development. Initiatives that help to foster mutual learning and long-term relationships are vital. One example is the China Global Development Knowledge Network which is run by the IDS-led UK Anchor Institution for the China International Development Research Network and the IDS Centre for Rising Powers and Global Development, in partnership with the China International Development Research Network. The Network has had immediate impact in terms of opening new connections between UK and Chinese development researchers and institutions.

In a changed, and still rapidly changing, global landscape there is much debate on the future of development cooperation. Further dialogue is needed to explore new approaches to international development cooperation over the coming decades. How to build an essential foundation and rule-based international order to share responsibilities and build mutual trust and understanding will be the critical challenge in a pandemic era.

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