Should Australia join the Chinese-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)? As often happens in international affairs, the answer is not found in the technical pros and cons of the proposal, but in the politics.
America seems to have strongly encouraged its close Asian friends (Japan, South Korea and Australia) not to join, concerned about China's growing influence in Asia. But now that the United Kingdom has decided to become a founding member, the pressure is on the hold-outs to sign up.
There is no doubt that Asia needs much more infrastructure; that China has a lot of experience at building it; and that China has massive savings to help fund it. There is no doubt, too, that there would be some overlap with the World Bank and, perhaps more obviously, with the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
The AIIB does raise some questions. Would some competition between rival funding institutions be helpful? Would this new channel add to the resources going into infrastructure, or just re-channel the same funds? Is Australia more effective in improving AIIB governance by joining in from the start or by playing hard-to-get?
To start, the AIIB is just one more example of devolution away from the centralised global economic institutions created at Bretton Woods in 1944 and towards a more regional framework. The establishment of the Asian Development Bank in 1966 was an early example. The devolution process in Asia was given a huge boost by the Asian financial crisis of 1997-8. Many policy-makers in the region still hold the view that the IMF failed to understand the crisis, and from then on, they realised they should work to build regional institutions.
Japan's attempt to create an Asian Monetary Fund in 1998 was vetoed by America (China also resisted). Since then, the Chiang Mai Initiative has encroached on IMF territory, although it has yet to demonstrate operational capacity. Regional groupings such as ASEAN have become stronger, and regional networks have established close personal relations between officials across a wide range of disciplines and levels. For the most part, these regional institutions have been slow developers (it's hard to see the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateral (CMIM) becoming an effective rival to the IMF), but much of the interaction is now at a regional level.
There is a powerful case for subsidiarity – pushing responsibility down to the lowest level practicable. Differences between the globe's regions are substantial, so regional knowledge and region-specific policies matter. Countries are also more likely to come to the assistance of neighbours. The Washington-based institutions have become top-heavy, weighed down by the need to placate universal representation. Rules imposed in response to specific problems are often applied globally.
The region already has the ADB. Does it need the AIIB, the BRICS New Development Bank and the Chinese New Silk Road initiative? Probably not. But Japan continues to monopolise control of the ADB (where Japan and the US each have voting rights well over twice as large as China's and the president is always a Japanese). The US dominates the Washington institutions, with the American Congress preventing even modest governance reforms at the IMF.
Given this ossified and unwelcoming environment, China's search for alternatives is inevitable.
Rather than lobbying its allies to oppose the Chinese initiative, the Obama Administration might remind Congress of the cost of its recalcitrance. As for Australia, the answer on the AIIB is now obvious. New Zealand has decided to join. Will they, once again, get ahead of us in regional ties?
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Asian Development Bank.