November 2, 2022
BEIJING – China watchers around the globe just had a busy few days as they tuned in for the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Major international media outlets ran editorials on the gathering, too. Using words like “instrumental” and “formidable” to describe the second-biggest economy in the world, they declared, perhaps reluctantly, that China’s influence was no longer insignificant.
In a recent exclusive interview with CGTN, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said he hoped the 20th CCP National Congress could “make decisions that contribute not only to the people of China, but also to regional stability and world peace, and also contribute to regional and world prosperity”. He further said he thought “that’s what all countries want”.
What does the 20th CCP National Congress mean for Indonesia—and for that matter ASEAN as a whole—which is both an emerging market and China’s close neighbor, and whose largest trading partner is China? The key to the answer is one word: development.
China’s ambition in proactive engagement with global development issues has been evident and consistent for the past decade. From blueprinting the Silk Road Economic Belt in Kazakhstan in 2013, to proposing the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road in Indonesia’s House of Representatives later the same year, then to announcing the Global Development Initiative at the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, Chinese leaders have been steadfastly calling for the international community to join China’s development initiatives.
And these initiatives are not just lofty ideals. Railroad tracks have been laid down in Indonesia and Laos; seaports are being renovated in Greece and Sri Lanka; the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has become a reliable lender to developing economies, to name just a few.
The 20th CCP National Congress produces predictability and continuity. The report delivered by Xi Jinping to the 20th CCP National Congress assigned a special section on foreign policy, in which development was accentuated as one of the main approaches through which China would interact with the world.
In reaffirming China’s opening-up policy, the report wrote that the country was “prepared to invest more resources in global development cooperation”, “committed to narrowing the North-South gap and supporting and assisting other developing countries in accelerating development”.
On China’s involvement in global governance, the report wrote that the country was working to see that “emerging markets and developing countries are better represented and have a greater say in global affairs”.
The decision to focus more on development seems to be hedging on the CCP leadership’s judgement in the incremental changes happening to China’s strategic environment. The beginning of the report’s foreign policy section stated that historical trends of our times are unfolding in two parallel yet conflicting aspects: peace and development are unstoppable, while hegemonic and bullying acts are exerting greater influence.
Such a statement does not mark a complete shift from the CCP’s previous long-standing judgement that peace and development were the trend of the times, but it certainly acknowledges how issues paramount to today’s world—the Ukraine war being one of them—are affecting the Chinese strategic thinking.
The CCP is ever pragmatic. Bearing in mind that, though it is the second-largest economy in the world, China remains – and will remain for a long time – a developing economy, the CCP leadership proposes development as the way it establishes its relations with the world because it understands this sits at the core of aspirations of the global south. And the Chinese people share the same sentiment.
The war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic have made the vulnerability of developing economies more acute. Rampant inflation, disrupted supply chains, food and energy crises: these are creating existential challenges for the developing world. And Chinese policymakers are aware they should be taken on by joint efforts.
Finally, domestic mandates set out in the report also point to China’s deeper commitment to the global development cause. The report enacted two major missions for the CCP both of which require China’s active participation in global development, the first being a Chinese path to modernization, the second being high-quality development, neither of which could be possible without further exchange with the developing world in trade, tech know-how, talent, etc.
Quite a number of western pundits have voiced complaints about China’s development efforts globally. Some say China considers riches before rights, others prophesy a forthcoming Chinese economic crash or question the viability of the Chinese model, with the central argument that China should not be allowed to lead the development conversation.
The uncomfortable truth these pundits need to realize and live with is that, with its economy being the second biggest in the world, China is indeed seeking influence – all the while taking up responsibilities – commensurate with its size; and othering the Chinese path of a socialist market economy just because it’s so different will not negate the achievements it has made.
Indonesia – and ASEAN at large – already have ample experience working with China on development projects. Granted, each project has its own challenges and problems. How to ensure that infrastructure construction does not cause environmental and ecological damage, how to bring more employment to local communities – these are what planners should take into consideration when building roads, railways, industrial parks, etc.
But for now, Indonesia and China have already laid a solid enough foundation that they can continue building on.