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Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank | A Challenge for Bretton Woods

A little more than a year after it was broached, a new multilateral bank in Asia — the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) — was born in Beijing on Oct 24, 2014, signalling in the process the failure of hectic lobbying by the United States against the move. The AIIB, along with the other new China-based institution, the BRICS Bank, represents the first major challenge to the US-led global economic order and the 70-year uncontested reign of the Bretton Woods twins. In a way, the IMF and the World Bank have only themselves to blame if they find their dominance under threat, because the seeds of the new bank sprouted from either their inability or unwillingness, or both, to meet the growing funding needs of Asia.

Emerging economic powers like China and India have long been demanding greater share of votes in multilateral development institutions like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank to reflect their recent phenomenal growth. China, for example, is now the world’s second-largest economy, — China’s economy is also expected to grow to $10 trillion this year — but its voting power in the Bretton Woods institutions amounts to only 3.72 per cent, compared with 17.4 per cent for the United States.

This situation is frustrating for these emerging economic powers — with less voting power, they have less influence within these institutions and less say about where the money from these organisations could go. Many developing countries are also fed up with the seemingly unfair conditions imposed on them by the Western powers. Moreover, after many years of negotiations, the US Congress rejected legislation that would reorganise the voting power of IMF member countries.

It was against this backdrop that Chinese President Xi Jinping announced plans in October last year to set up a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The main reason was that China was unwilling to accept the status quo and with to answer its critics, especially the US, that have long argued that China assume greater global responsibilities in areas like climate change and arms proliferation, Chinese President announced his plans to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank during a state visit to Indonesia.

While the framework and modus operandi of the proposed bank are still to be finalized, its need is beyond doubt. According to ADB, in the 10 years up to 2020, the region requires investments of $8 trillion in terms of national infrastructure, or $800 billion a year. The ADB currently lends out only about 1.5 per cent of this amount. Therefore, additional funding from the AIIB would be welcomed by the developing countries in Asia.

The AIIB is expected to have an initial capital base of $100 billion. Given that the ADB tripled its capital base from $55 billion to $165 billion only in 2009, the AIIB will start life with about two-thirds of the expanded capital base of the former.

From China’s point of view, such a bank makes perfect sense. A major feature of China’s miraculous economic rise has been its emphasis on infrastructure development. In the 20 years from 1992 to 2011, China spent nearly 8.5 per cent of its GDP on infrastructure — corresponding figures for other Asian countries were between 2 and 4 per cent.

The AIIB, to begin with, will serve at least five objectives for China. First, it could help China invest part of its foreign exchange reserves of $3.9 trillion on commercial terms. Second, it will play a vital role in the internationalization of the yuan. Third, it will help secure contracts for Chinese companies and thus boost employment opportunities at home. Fourth, China has funded many infrastructure projects across the world through the China Development Bank and Exim Bank, some of which have created resentment among local people. Funds from a regional development bank will ensure that there are no resentments. And fifth, the AIIB will boost China’s global influence and enhance its soft power.

Indeed, Xi’s proposal has ruffled some feathers, especially in Japan and the US, for these countries stand to lose some of their power and influence. Tokyo and Washington have worked together to maintain the power structure in the 67-member ADB where they each hold 15.7 per cent of votes, against a paltry 6.5 per cent by China.
Reports indicate that the US is pressuring Australia and South Korea not to join the AIIB. But as Hedley Bull, eminent late Oxford professor, once said, “People have friends but countries have only interests.” Thus Australia, India and South Korea will decide whether or not to join the bank based on their national interests.

China has considerable experience in infrastructure planning and construction, and financing projects outside the country. As Finance Minister Lou Jiwei has said, China Development Bank’s commercial infrastructure loan is now far bigger than that of the World Bank and ADB combined. And surprisingly, this process started only 20 years ago.

China has often been accused of lending funds to developing countries without taking into consideration good governance, and environmental and social safeguards. Projects in China have often suffered from similar shortcomings. Although China is learning fast how to overcome the shortcomings both at home and abroad, its presence in the developing world has been positive even with the shortcomings.

Some critics argue that the AIIB will reduce the environmental, social and procurement standards in a race to the bottom. This is a childish criticism, especially because China has invited other governments to help with funding and governance.

The AIIB is a win-win proposition for everyone. For the developing countries in Asia, it will be a new source of funding. For China, it will be a channel to strengthen soft power and enhance economic benefits. For the ADB and the World Bank, it will be a challenge to perform better and undertake reforms, which are long overdue.

AIIB and Pakistan

The IMF loans have political repercussions as well because they are provided at very stringent conditions which almost dictate to the borrowing countries the policies initiatives they should take to improve the health of the economy. It is more discernible in Pakistan where the IMF is insisting on enhancement in the prices of electricity and gas, phasing out subsidies and increasing regressive sales tax.

The establishment of AIIB has the potential of building strong economic linkages and the creation of a regional economic fraternity. Pakistan’s finance minister Ishaq Dar, while speaking to the Chinese media, said:

“We believe the bank will constitute an important platform to convert the abundant savings available in the region into investments to help regional economies in sustainable and rapid development and to contribute to the world economy.”

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