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Multilateralism with Chinese Characteristics The emergence of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and its place in the international economic order


In January 2016, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) was established in order to ‘fill the gap’ in financing for infrastructure in Asia, but its significance is more than the roads, power plants and fiber optic lines in which it invests: Financially and politically backed by the Chinese Party-State and a membership of more than 100 governments and counting, the AIIB is unprecedented as an institution of global governance. Yet tensions between the US-led international economic order and China’s vision for a system of global economic governance that respects the territorial sovereignty of its members make the trajectory of the new institution unclear. In this moment of historic uncertainty, I focus on the AIIB’s environmental and social policies as a site of struggle between these competing forces. On one hand, transnational advocacy networks draw authority from forces of US hegemony to advocate for strong bank control over environmental and social standards. On the other hand, the bank’s founders have promised its members from developing countries that a China-led MDB will free them of bank interference in the domestic affairs of borrower countries.

Drawing on five years of fieldwork starting while the AIIB was still an idea on the negotiator’s table until the adoption and implementation of its environmental and social framework and related policies, I argue that the AIIB represents the desire of the Chinese state to disentangle the international economic order from US hegemony. However, the bank’s choice to adhere to global financial norms, including raising money on international bond markets in US dollar-denominated notes, leaves few options for offering its borrowers a substantive alternative to major MDBs. In this context, environmental and social governance of projects has emerged as a site to introduce ‘non-interference’ into bank norms, but, I argue, this is also an attempt by the bank to dismantle transnational advocacy networks. As such, the choice to re-territorialize borrower sovereignty is also one that isolates place-based struggles against national development projects and thus perpetuates the inequities and harms of neoliberal development against marginalized peoples and environments.

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