Who is the partner of choice for developing states?

The European Union have provided development and trading partnerships with nations from every corner of the globe. In doing so, the EU promotes democracy and human rights by attaching social provisions and human rights conditions to their agreements. For example, EU development partnerships in the Indo-Pacific or Central Africa will be subject to clauses regarding the internal affairs of a country.

Comparatively, China’s programs and partnerships do not bind political clauses to agreements. China promotes norms of ‘unconditionally’ and ‘win-win’ economic outcomes and will turn a blind eye to the internal affairs of the countries it partners with.  This approach allows China to be increasingly viewed as the development partner of choice as they are willing to meet the immediate economic needs of states.      

The Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 further elevated the status of China’s economic model.  Responding to the crisis, China unleashed substantial stimulus packages through the state-controlled financial sector and aided regional neighbours. China’s trade surpluses and currency manipulation have also led it to accumulate the world’s largest foreign currency reserves, thus becoming a central part of the international political economy. China’s performance, when juxtaposed with Europe’s response which was largely confined to bailing out poorly regulated banks, positions China strongly to extend its normative power throughout the developing world.            

The European Union’s strict criterion for its membership and programs rests on principles of democracy and the rule of law. While developing countries have traditionally been willing to make concessions in their internal affairs in return for economic benefit, China is providing ‘no strings attached’ partnerships and an economic model that outperforms that of the EU. Therefore, the EU’s normative influence to promote democracy throughout the world is waning significantly.   

To maintain a normative presence which continues to push developing nations closer towards democracy and the recognition of human rights, the EU must do more to acknowledge the role of China by allowing reform in areas of traditional EU development initiatives. Greater flexibility and inclusion in EU programs will enable a balance to be struck between economic and social development. This will also reduce the appeal of China’s development program which often leaves countries devastated by national debt and forced to maintain deferential stances towards the grand strategy of the CCP.

A right to develop?

The “East Asian Miracle” was the title of a 1993 World Bank report which attributed the rapid economic growth and development of Asian countries post-World War II to the success of neoliberalism. While the neo-liberal theory of development is widely held in the West, the developmental state theory poses a challenge to the Anglo-American analysis, providing an alternate explanation for the rise of economies within East Asian following World War II. 

Critics of the neo-liberal consensus argued that Asian economies rapidly developed due to the strong, centralised roles assumed by governments in economic planning. Regional leaders such as Former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Yuan Yew also reacted to the atmosphere of neoliberal triumphalism that was conveyed in the World Bank report and advocated for others to “look East” toward countries like Japan for models of economic development rather than West.

Developmental state theory argues that late industrialising nations need to take measures to catch up with advanced capitalist economies. Protection and oversight from central governments can help to created a dynamic environment for countries to develop evenly and strengthen their industrial capabilities prior to integrating into the neo-liberal global market. 

While developmental state theory provides a plausible alternate explanation for the rise of East Asian economies, the model is not superior to a democratic capitalist system. The strong role of the government in developmental states gives rise to authoritarianism. In the interests of pursuing drastic economic development, states subordinate political objectives. This means that citizens are not free to criticise their government or actively have a voice in policy development. 

The process of industrialisation enables developing states to drastically improve living standards and reduce abject poverty. Such needs are arguably more pressing than the actualisation of civil liberties in countries where access to food, water, shelter and sanitation are not ubiquitous. 

Given these considerations, it is reasonable to offer developing states a grace period in which they can prioritise national economic development above the civil rights of citizens. However, when has a state sufficiently developed to a stage where the international community can pressure them to uphold the human rights of their citizens?

In practice, the international community has had difficulty in grappling with such questions. Most notably, China lays claim to the second most powerful economy in the world while also holding developing-state status which allows it to maintain the need for international concessions and time to adequately develop. 

The right to develop is an internationally recognised right at the United Nations and has also been ratified in a number of international instruments and national declarations.

  • 1991 China published a White Paper on its right to prioritise economic stability over Western priorities of civil and political freedoms (essentially China published the view that individual freedoms, while important should not come before the interests of the collective)  
  • Right to Develop is recognised at the UN (since 1986) and this resolution and way of thinking continues to be a prominent issue cited by developing countries when discussing international issues (UN- Res. 41/128) 
  • This right is also recognised in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Arab Charter on Human Rights
  • Reaffirmed in in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the 1993 Vienna Programme of Action and  2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Though the international community has found consensus on the existence of an international right to develop, a lack of clarity remains on when this right expires.

So long as China continues to argue its status as a developing state and the leader of the developing world, the right to develop will increasingly be used as a tool for countries to argue that authoritarian governance and centralised economies are not merely temporary but rather provide a strong alternate model to democratic/capitalist governance. This reality will result in a world that is less free, and more divided between East and West.