Chinese Influence Threatens the Neutrality of the SDGs

The prevailing foreign assistance architecture of today’s world, which prioritizes transparency, inclusion and accountability, was developed and codified in a unipolar system—with significant U.S. leadership and influence. Since the end of the Cold War, Western donors have supported this framework, further developing and codifying it in the Millennium Development Goals of 2000; the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness; the 2008 Accra Agenda, which built on the Paris Declaration; and the 2011 Busan Agreement to standardize good development practice, norms and standards.

This architecture is now coming under pressure, largely due to China’s growing interest in and influence over today’s predominant development paradigm: the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. Beijing’s interest comes at a particularly important time, as the U.N.’s Agenda 2030—which calls for achieving all of the SDGs by that year—is looking further out of reach due to the coronavirus pandemic’s impact in low- and middle-income countries. COVID-19 is forcing the development community to take stock of current progress on Agenda 2030, while recognizing that the framework that succeeds it will be forged within the constraints of an increasingly competitive and multipolar world.

Chinese leaders know the SDGs matter. Their rhetorical leadership on this issue began in 2015, when President Xi Jinping, speaking at the U.N. General Assembly, called for aligning the goals with China’s flagship global infrastructure and development program, the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI. The U.N.—where Chinese officials occupy an increasing number of top agency posts—has been broadly receptive to this idea, with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres saying in a 2019 speech in Beijing that “the United Nations is poised to support the alignment of the Belt and Road Initiative with the Sustainable Development Goals.”

While many U.S. policymakers are closely watching China’s efforts to expand its influence across the broader political components of the U.N., its burgeoning interest in influencing development has received less attention. That gap, partially a result of the Trump administration’s agnosticism toward the SDGs, has provided space for China to influence the system around its goals, from data collection to national-level implementation, often in ways that further Beijing’s interests while threatening the neutrality of the SDG framework.

In response to this rising Chinese influence, and to the unprecedented crisis of COVID-19, the U.S. should reinvigorate its leadership on the SDGs to preserve the autonomy, inclusiveness and transparency of Agenda 2030.

Getting a full picture of the impact of Chinese assistance in developing countries is often difficult. However, analysis of recently released country-level reports from a Chinese-funded U.N. project provides an interesting window into Beijing’s interest in the SDGs and its broader approach to international development. The project, titled “Jointly building the Belt and Road towards the Sustainable Development Goals,” was launched in 2016 and is currently in its close-out phase. It focused on capacity-building and national policy guidance, and the reports give interesting insights into China’s international development vision.

The final report of the project looks at a wide range of Chinese-funded development initiatives across 14 countries—from the Czech Republic to Cambodia. Most of those are designed to support infrastructure development—No. 9 out of the 17 SDGs. For example, 54 percent of Chinese-funded projects in Cambodia were on transportation, while 47 percent of spending in Laos went to infrastructure. The final report finds that these infrastructure projects come with a range of social, economic and environmental risks to the participating countries. It notes that “rigorous environmental and social assessments are necessary prior to project approval, and an oversight mechanism is needed to ensure that such assessments are not biased towards the entity implementing the project.” However, there is little evidence that those processes are actually taking place, nor does there seem to be an active effort to align the projects with the host governments’ own SDG priorities. For example, while Bangladesh has expressed its desire to focus on SDGs related to green energy and climate change adaptation, the majority of BRI support to the country went to coal-fired power plants in Chattogram and Payra.

China’s growing activism on the SDGs seems to be for the express purpose of ensuring that norms, rules and standards are preferential—or at least not detrimental—to the BRI.

The Cambodia report discusses a disconnect between BRI-funded transportation infrastructure and locally led goals on poverty reduction, pointing out that Chinese state-owned enterprises charged with implementing development projects often skirt local laws on employment, spur deforestation and undercut road safety—which in turn make it harder for the country to fulfill its SDG priorities. The country reports collectively give the impression that the BRI-SDG program operates not as a co-planning effort but a co-branding one, in which the imprimatur of the SDGs is applied to BRI-funded projects, even those not accounting for local objectives or working at fundamental cross purposes with country-level development priorities.

After reading through the BRI-SDG reports, it is hard to avoid the takeaway that China’s interest in SDG programming directly threatens the neutrality of the shared vision of the SDGs, in a way that runs counter to its own rhetoric. Beijing’s 2021 international development white paper cited the desire to “improve global governance in international development cooperation, and safeguard the international system with the U.N. at its core.” The SDGs can be considered an important part of that core. But China’s growing activism in setting the prevailing global development order seems to be for the express purpose of ensuring that norms, rules and standards are preferential—or at least not detrimental—to the BRI.

This should alarm policymakers around the world, who have a vested interest in ensuring that development is inclusive, transparent and accountable. The SDGs cannot become a stamp of approval for controversial or failing projects.

It is incumbent upon aid donors to uphold a development vision that balances their own investments in sectors where China has shown little interest—such as health, education, climate and governance—with slightly more confrontational actions to respond directly to instances where China is skirting international standards in its engagement with the goals. This means empowering local actors to call out those efforts that detract from, rather than promote, shared development goals.

The U.S. has a powerful role to play by investing in locally determined commitments while rejuvenating its influence within international organizations that are responsible for specific SDG targets. After four years of neglect under Trump, U.S. President Joe Biden has an important opportunity to push for the U.N. system to uphold the values of transparency and accountability in the application of the goals as a global brand.

Finally, the U.S. must document its progress on development, including its longstanding domestic governance challenges, through a Voluntary National Review. China’s own Voluntary National Review, released in July, told a sweeping story of the country’s path to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and its commitment to doing the same for others. By not doing its own review of progress on the SDGs, the U.S. has forfeited an opportunity to tell its own international development story—from the Marshall Plan until today. The review process offers the added benefit of using the goals to bridge the work of international and domestic policymakers to ensure that the Biden administration’s foreign policy objectives serve the American middle class.

In its interim national security guidance, the Biden administration tasked policymakers to ensure that the U.S. sets the international agenda and the norms and values therein. At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is hampering progress on the SDGs, and China is expanding its influence over multilateral institutions, the international development architecture should be a priority, not an afterthought, of that exercise.

Kristen A. Cordell is a Council on Foreign Relations fellow with the Center for Strategic International Studies. The views presented here are her own and do not represent any of her affiliated institutions.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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