Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Should South Korea join China-led AIIB?

First published in The Korea Herald.

South Korea, Australia and Indonesia were conspicuous by their absence in Beijing on Oct. 24, when China, India and 19 other countries signed a memorandum of understanding to launch the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank ― set to become one of the Asia-Pacific’s biggest lenders in the years to come.

While there is still time for the three countries to make a decision ― the AIIB will be operational only next year ― and they are keeping their options open, there is a real danger that they may not enjoy the same clout as they would have if they had joined the other Asian countries in Beijing. The case is more so for South Korea, whose economy is closely linked to other emerging Asian economies.

The Finance Ministry has officially stated that it has been speaking with China to request further consideration over details such as the AIIB’s governance and operational principles.

“We have continued to demand rationality in areas such as governance and safeguard issues, and there’s no reason not to join it,” Finance Minister Choi Kyung-hwan was quoted as saying.
Obviously, Korea is still in a dilemma on what sort of strategic choices it has to make as China and India together challenge the international economic order led by the U.S. and its Western allies.
Did South Korea do the right thing by refusing to commit itself immediately as a founding member?

On the surface ― there have been numerous media reports ― the three countries gave in to pressure from the U.S., which has raised questions about “the need for another funding agency to rival the World Bank and Asian Development Bank” as also concerns on “its governance, environmental standards and debt sustainability.”

Among the Asian countries, Japan has also kept its distance, but has not raised any eyebrows as was widely expected. It possesses the most influential and powerful voting power over the decision making of the $175 billion ADB along with the U.S., and is not rushed to support a new “rival” on the block.

Since its establishment in 1966, the ADB has played a clear complementary role to the World Bank in aiding infrastructure development and poverty alleviation in the region. Its main role is to make money available to member countries so they can implement their own development programs and provide working-level assistance in carrying them out.

In 2013, the ADB approved $10.19 billion in loans and $142 million in equity investments, and raised $12 billion in long- and medium-term funds.

However, if one looks at the shareholding pattern of the organization, it becomes clear that apart from Japan, the U.S. and its Western allies, the remaining emerging economies in Asia have very little say in the running of the organization that is meant for them. The ADB was modeled closely after the World Bank, and has a similar weighted voting system where votes are distributed in proportion to each member’s capital subscriptions.

As of December 2013, Japan had the highest percentage of shares at 15.7 percent with a voting share of 12.8 percent, followed by the U.S. with 15.6 percent (12.7 percent vote) and China, India, Australia, Canada, Indonesia, and Korea each with 5-6.5 percent of shares and a 4-5.5 percent vote. The European Union member states, if taken as a single block ― though they vote independently ― have a share of 14.4 percent with a voting share of 15.7 percent.

Since the ADB’s early days, critics have charged that Japan, the U.S. and its Western allies have extensive influence over lending, policy and staffing decisions. There is a feeling that these decisions are not always in the best interest of the other Asian countries.

It was therefore natural for China to push for the proposed $100 billion AIIB. After initial reluctance, India too has joined, along with Singapore and other regional heavyweights.

By becoming a founding member and having a greater stake in the organization, Korea could easily raise its economic clout in the region. The AIIB should not be seen as a rival to the ADB, but as a complementary organization.

As per the ADB’s estimates, developing Asian economies need to invest $8 trillion to 2020 just to keep pace with expected infrastructure needs, of which only a tiny portion is provided by the existing multilateral lenders. As such, the AIIB will be able to bridge the gap to a certain extent.

There is clearly room for a new development bank, specialized in financing large-scale economic infrastructure on commercial terms. The ADB does have the expertise to lend a lot more for infrastructure, but has moved in a different direction, focusing more on concessional lending and knowledge sharing with low-income countries, with the main goal being poverty alleviation. That leaves an important niche to be filled by the new organization.

It will also be more effective if the countries that are affected by its lending policies actually have a greater say in how it is run.

The MOU said authorized capital of the bank would be $100 billion and that the AIIB would be formally established by the end of 2015 with its headquarters in Beijing. China is set to be its largest shareholder with a stake of up to 50 percent, the remaining coming from other countries and the private sector.

If Korea has concerns about its governance, it should become a member and try to fix it. Not becoming a founding member of something like this could be a tactical blunder. This is the opportunity to grab a big stake and voting powers, before it is too late.

In any case, in a speech to delegates after the inauguration, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised the best practices. “For the AIIB, its operation needs to follow multilateral rules and procedures. We have also to learn from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank and other existing multilateral development institutions in their good practices and useful experiences,” he said.

Refusing to take part in an effort to help Asian countries fix their infrastructure will only end up putting Korea in a very poor light ― particularly since, in the initial stages of development, it borrowed heavily from the ADB to shore up its own infrastructure.

Korea needs to continue to develop its relationship with broader Asia and be seen as a part of the development push instead of bowing to U.S. pressure. Moreover, joining the AIIB is in no way indicative of Korea’s stand on political issues in the region.


Anonymous said...

This article is spot on !!
Korea should join asap the AIIB.
Especially becoz it is a important country in Asia and for the costs of the reunificaion with North Korea.