Addressing the challenges of climate disruption, international migration, pandemics, violent conflicts and poverty eradication require increased collaboration across national borders.
The growth of nationalism and protectionist policies are, however, forcing many to rethink well-established understandings of the benefits of globalisation. Will the traditionally powerful actors of the Global North will be able to reassert their dominance in this new and fast-changing global landscape?
At the moment, the answer is a resounding “no”. With the United States backtracking on agreements on climate, and signalling cuts in foreign aid, China has emerged as the strongest champion of globalisation.
Apart from signalling that it will continue to support the Paris agreement on climate change and consolidate its foreign aid and investment policies, China has in recent years actively promoted its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Launched in 2013, and estimated to cost over $5 trillion, the BRI aims to increase global connectivity through a series of large investments in roads, bridges, gas pipelines, railways, ports and power plants in large parts of the world. Thus far, Beijing has completed major infrastructure projects in Africa and Asia and plans are currently underway for new ventures in Europe.
The international discourse on the BRI is polarised. Critics argue that the BRI has not only expanded the market for Chinese goods and services but also strengthened China’s military and geostrategic priorities.
They believe China is worried about its own economic slowdown and doubt that other nations will benefit from Beijing’s desire to accumulate “soft power” aimed at bolstering its international status and reputation. Many also worry about the consequences of low-income countries defaulting on their debts and Beijing’s future response to such events.
But the BRI also has numerous supporters who believe that by helping to integrate small and emerging markets into the global economy, the initiative will enable countries to better exploit their natural resources.
With its focus on infrastructure development, the initiative is thus praised as an example of the type of economic growth and development strategy that the West has long abandoned.
By creating new multilateral financial institutions (e.g. New Development Bank, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Silk Road Fund) and actively promoting the idea that the BRI and the global 2030 agenda are closely linked, Beijing has cultivated considerable goodwill abroad.
Numerous world leaders and international organisations appear to view the BRI positively in terms of promoting global development.
Indeed, while it has in recent years championed various causes on behalf of the Global South, China is now also increasingly being projected as a champion of issues that are growing in importance in the West—addressing the adverse impacts of climate change and strengthening the global sustainable development agenda.