Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Research Director, Energy, Environment and Resources
Research Director, Energy, Environment and Resources
Research Associate, Energy, Environment and Resources

Dr Wei Jigang, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Industrial Economy, Development Research Center of the State Council (DRC)
Dr Zhao Changwen, Director, Department of Industrial Economy, Development Research Center of the State Council (DRC)

How China responds to the challenges of resource security and sustainability, working with others, will help define its reputation as a responsible actor on the world stage in the next decade, according to a new paper.

Qingdao, China. Photo by TPG/Getty Images.Qingdao, China. Photo: Getty Images.

Key findings

  • It is time to upgrade global resource governance
  • Meaningful progress cannot be achieved without China
  • China will need to be both innovative and pragmatic in its approach
  • New modes of cooperation are needed
  • Changes in China’s economy present opportunities and risks

Executive summary

China’s new role in the global governance of natural resources is coming to the fore against a backdrop of profound uncertainty, driven by the convergence of three interlinked trends. At home, China’s leaders are navigating the structural shift to slower but higher-quality growth, a phase of development referred to as the ‘new normal’, while facing considerable environmental and resource security challenges. Globally, the slowdown in China’s economy has sent reverberations through commodity markets, pulling the plug on the decade-long commodities ‘super cycle’. Meanwhile, China is taking on a growing role in global governance, from the G20 and multilateral development banks, to its regional partnerships in Latin America and Africa.

During the resources boom of the last decade, policy-makers and businesses in consumer countries were focused on high and volatile resource prices. The risks posed by resource nationalism in producer countries were seen in the proliferation of export restrictions and the increase in investment disputes. Today, the tables have turned, leaving producer countries facing economic pressure from falling revenues and investments. Many organizations have called on governments to phase out subsidies for fossil fuels and other natural resources while prices are low. The international policy debate is shifting to the immediate challenges presented by a massive oversupply of many energy and mineral commodities, and the longer-term risk of ‘stranded assets’.

These new resource realities will provide the context for China’s growing global role, as well as setting the tenor of its relations with producer countries. Over the past decade, narratives around China often focused on its real or perceived impacts from resource production overseas and consumption at home. In the next, China’s approach to resource security and sustainability will help define its reputation, and whether it is perceived as a responsible actor on the world stage and as a development partner. The collection of international narratives, norms, rules and organizations that currently guides resource production, trade and consumption – what we call ‘global resource governance' in this report – will provide the framework.

Much political leadership will be required to overcome the barriers to China assuming a more active role in global resource governance. On the one hand, there has been slow progress in expanding China’s role in organizations from the World Bank to the International Energy Agency (IEA). On the other, new instruments or processes initiated by China can be seen as a challenge to the existing rules-based order, as the US reaction to the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) demonstrated. Yet developments such as the US–China Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change in September 2015, ahead of the Paris Climate Conference, show that it is possible to forge cooperation and boost the prospects for progress on public goods at the multilateral level, even in politically fraught areas.

China’s international role on natural resources is also closely tied to ongoing reforms at home. The introduction of ‘ecological civilization’ as a guiding principle for China’s development at the Communist Party’s 17th Congress in 2007 marked a recognition of the need not only to address China’s domestic challenges such as air quality and water scarcity but also shift to an environmentally sustainable model of economic development. In 2015 China’s leaders set out the key incentives, accountability and mechanisms to deliver the ecological civilization in China’s 13th Five-Year Plan. Central elements of this vision, such as building sustainable cities, pursuing environmentally-friendly economic growth and developing the circular economy will have major impacts on China’s future resource consumption and import needs.

Globally, the speed and scale of the economic realignments have taken most experts and policy-makers by surprise – in many respects, China’s new normal is the world’s new normal. The greatest challenge that China’s government faces is managing a shift to slower but higher-quality growth. It is clear that the ramifications of this reach far beyond the confines of the Chinese economy or global commodity markets; yet the situation remains fluid and the nature of a new equilibrium is difficult to predict. This only makes it more urgent to consider the strategic and practical options available to policy-makers, both in China and around the world.

This report is the result of two years of joint research between Chatham House and the Development Research Center of the State Council (DRC), including six expert workshops in China and conversations with international organizations. It discusses key policy areas in global resource governance as they relate to China – in light of recent falls in commodity prices, China’s shifting economic situation, and its growing global role in the ‘new normal’. The scope of the research is limited to non-renewable energy, metals and mineral resources; throughout this report, the term ‘resources’ refers to these commodities. Other traded commodities such as agricultural goods are not included, and land, water and air are discussed only in the context of their important linkages with energy and metals. 

The report considers the costs and benefits of a more active role for China in global resources governance. It recognizes that different commodities face different challenges and require different governance frameworks, and that different regions require context-specific responses. The report also considers the risks of more limited engagement of China and other new actors, which could mean declining relevance for existing processes and institutions that govern resource production, trade and consumption, and a diminished capacity to tackle longer-term challenges like climate change.