Paola Subacchi
Research Director, International Economics
The era of a US-dominated global economic order is ending. But a fragmented governance system isn't the best replacement.
China's President Xi Jinping and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker attend the Open Plenary Session at the G20 Leaders' Summit on 15 November 2014 in Brisbane. Photo by Andrew Taylor/G20 Australia via Getty Images.China's President Xi Jinping and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker attend the Open Plenary Session at the G20 Leaders' Summit on 15 November 2014 in Brisbane. Photo via Getty Images.

The US rebuke of Britain earlier this month for its participation in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has put the spotlight on a set of questions that have dogged policymakers and economists for years: Who is in charge of global economic governance? Who sets and manages the rules? And should they be set multilaterally?

Stalled evolution

Given China’s controversial lending to countries with murky track records — not only in terms of good governance and political stability, but also credit ratings — the concerns about the direction of the new bank and the role that all shareholders will be playing are spot on. But the US stance vis-à-vis the new institution and the role that China might play in it is also highly hypocritical. With Congress’s approval of International Monetary Fund (IMF) reform still pending, is the United States in the best position to preach to others on the risk of using China’s mold for shaping the new bank?

As big developing countries, in particular China, have transformed in the last two decades, so has global economic governance along with it. But governance seems to evolve at a much slower pace than the world economy. The so-called Bretton Woods institutions — the IMF, the World Bank and, to some extent, the World Trade Organization (and its previous incarnation, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) — that have been in place since the end of the Second World War, reflect a world economic order dominated by the United States. Despite their 188 states-strong membership, both the IMF and the World Bank continued to be managed by the United States and Western European countries — Britain, Germany and France. The US is the largest shareholder in the IMF, contributing approximately $65 billion, which gives Washington veto power on other countries’ deliberations thanks to the fund’s weighted voting system.

For years, many around the world have called for reforms to the IMF’s governance to give other countries a greater voice in decision-making. To date, those efforts have been largely stymied. As a consequence, both the IMF and the World Bank continue to be seen as an extension of US economic and geopolitical influence. This is despite the softening of the so-called Washington Consensus — policy measures that have been part of the IMF’s conditional lending — since the excesses of the 1980s and 1990s. And the fact that both the IMF and the World Bank are now much more diverse than they used to be — for instance, nearly half of IMF staff are from developing countries now — also has done little to change the perception that both organizations answer to Washington.

Fragmenting global governance

The AIIB’s creation is a response to Asia’s large infrastructure financing gap, which has been estimated to be about $8 trillion between 2010 and 2020. However, besides this purely economic argument it would be difficult not to detect, behind the establishment of the new bank, China’s urge to advance its influence in the region. Under the current arrangement, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which is modelled on the World Bank, is primarily responsible for Asian infrastructure financing and other development projects. But China has limited impact on the Asian Development Bank, which is in the grip of Asia’s established powers, the United States and Japan.

But even if the AIIB’s creation is in China’s interest as the new regional power, the move does little to respond to the need to improve multilateralism and to strengthen global economic governance. In fact, it may do the opposite. The risk now is the creation of two blocs of economic influence in Asia: one led by China and the other by the US and Japan. Demand for infrastructure investment is large enough to accommodate both — even a third development bank could probably find demand — but this is not the point. At stake is good governance and multilateralism — for instance, in a world of fragmented governance what would be the incentive for Congress to finally approve the IMF reform?

In addition to fragmented institutions and governance, the AIIB could present a risk of establishing divergent investment standards — a risk already significant in trade as China has reacted to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, of which it is not part, by accelerating its own trade arrangements in the region. Can the rest of the world — not only the United States — afford to leave China to set up its own standards on both trade and investment? The concern here is not on the quality of these standards — and the assumption is not that Chinese-set standards are by definition inadequate. It is on maintaining a harmonized, consistent and multilateral framework of rules and standards that help integrate, rather than fragment, the world economy.

Harnessing the G20

Rather than venting their frustration on Britain, the US would benefit most from leading by example and embracing a two-fold strategy. First, Congress could press ahead and approve the IMF reform with no further delay. Second, the administration could engage with China on the issue of the new regional banks — the New Development Bank, better known as the BRICS bank, is the next down the line — within the setup provided by the G20.

Since the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the G20 have been the leading forum for global economic and financial affairs, having taken over from the G8 after November 2008. Even if the G20 remains an informal forum without a secretariat, it has better adapted to the changing dynamics of the world economy than the IMF and the World Bank. In particular, the G20 have been better than the existing institutions at bringing in and engaging with emerging economies  all major emerging markets economies are members of the G20.

The outbreak of the global financial crisis was a catalyst, and a turning point, for global economic governance. The G20 have become critical for managing the world economy and, especially, for dealing with economic disruption and financial instability. This is why this forum should provide the context to discuss the setup of new multilateral institutions, such as the AIIB and other regional organizations, and to set the tone, and the rules, of the new global governance.

This article was originally published by Foreign Policy.

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