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  • Bojan Francuz

Renewed US-Chinese Development Cooperation is an Antidote to Lagging Progress on Sustainable Goals


The newly appointed US Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield inherited a slew of contentious issues over which she disagrees on with her Chinese counterpart. They range from the human rights violations in Xinjiang to the ways the UN Security Council should respond to the unfolding situation in Myanmar. Yet, there is one often overlooked area of multilateral cooperation, where the US and China could agree on going forward: accelerating the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


Global developmental needs are already immense. A public health crisis of COVID-19 threatens to increase the number of people living in extreme poverty, heighten gender inequality, and embolden authoritarian leaders.


Meanwhile, progress on SDGs implementation is lagging. While topics as peace, security and human rights are more politically challenging to resolve, development cooperation generally takes place in slightly less politically controversial contexts. This presents an opportunity for a fruitful US-Chinese cooperation on development aid, which would have an outsized impact in meeting the ever-growing development needs.


The Chinese government has presided over an unprecedented transformation of its society in the past several decades. It has met its own national poverty reduction targets, eliminating extreme poverty. Its staggering economic growth has also been accompanied by extensive investments into infrastructure and innovation, even if institutional and reform gaps still remain. Now, China is ready to export its development lessons to the world.


China has been steadily ramping up its international development and aid capacities in the past several years. While official data is hard to come by due to the opaque and decentralized nature of its giving, estimates put China’s aid flows on par with those of other major development donors such as Canada and Norway. In addition, as a part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s government is distributing generous assistance in the form of grants and various types of infrastructure loans to countries in different regions of the world.


While many in the West, most vocally the US, question the sustainability of Chinese aid and its impact on local communities, China remains intent on becoming a serious development partner. Externally, China has sought to link the ambitions of the Belt and Road Initiative to the implementation of the SDGs. It also continues to aggressively pursue references to BRI in numerous UN resolutions. Internally, it established a new governmental body, the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA), aiming to elevate the importance of foreign aid and align it with the country's overseas interests.


This growing ambition must not go unacknowledged by traditional development partners, including the US. On the contrary, it is a prime opportunity to leverage China’s ambition for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. It also creates conditions for China to pick up a larger part of the tab for maintenance of global public goods.

Future collaboration between the US and China could draw on immeasurable resources to safeguard the planet for future generations. Political commentators have pointed out to a slew of concrete ideas, ranging from joint-leadership on global climate governance under the Paris Agreement; increased bilateral cooperation on issues like zero-emission vehicles, zero-carbon buildings, and electrification, to investment in local leadership.


The two countries could also lead global efforts in containing the pandemic and leading the rebuilding efforts in its wake. In particular, the revitalization of poor countries’ economies which, if predictions hold, will feel the disproportionate impact of COVID-19. This can be achieved by concrete initiatives starting with re-establishment of public health cooperation between the two countries to creating a global surveillance network for emerging virus variants.


The lingering skepticism of approaches taken by Chinese development actors should not outweigh the promise of engagement and collaboration. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield has said as much in her now controversial 2019 speech, in which she recognized the transformative power of Chinese development aid across Africa. New research is also emerging, showing that concerns about China’s ‘debt-trap’ diplomacy are drastically overblown and in some instances unfounded.


Nevertheless, US engagement with China in development cooperation abroad should take place within strict parameters. They should include greater transparency of Chinese development actors and feature reinvigorated communication between both parties.


China is on track to assume a larger global role as a development actor in the years to come. The US and the international community should not only learn to deal with this reality. Instead, it should transform it into an opportunity to double-down on aid to those who are now left behind. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield is in the best position to engage with her Chinese counterpart and work together to make the 2030 Agenda a reality for all.


Bojan Francuz is a student at NYU's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and a Researcher/Program Associate at the NYU Center on International Cooperation working on SDG16 advocacy and implementation.


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