Launched by President Xi Jinping at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2021, the GDI aims to put “development high on the global macro policy agenda”. Its main constituency is the Global South that involves mostly developing and less developed countries. Thus far, the GDI remains largely a declaration of intent and principles and its funding scale is rather modest.  However, the GDI has been well received among developing countries, including in Southeast Asia. .

The GDI priority areas are: (i) poverty alleviation, (ii) food security, (iii) Covid-19 and vaccines, (iv) financing for development, (v) climate change and green development, (vi) industrialization, (vii) digital economy, and (viii) connectivity.

The GDI seeks to bolster China’s role as a global development actor and a “responsible major developing country”. It “frames China’s existing and new development cooperation efforts, repackaging, harmonizing and synergizing them for both China’s own internal coordination and articulation to the world”. Projects officially designated under the GDI are funded through the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA) or Chinese contributions to international initiatives/programs.

Although China’s official statements and bureaucratic arrangements mainly cast the GDI through the lens of development cooperation, the GDI should be assessed in the broader context of China’s economic statecraft towards developing countries. China’s development cooperation, and includes investments, diplomacy and other modalities, such as those implemented through the Belt and Road Initiative.” As such, the GDI is seen as a parallel and complementary track to the BRI. Both initiatives seek to align China’s financial, technological and human resources (supply-driven) with the economic and development needs of recipient countries (demand-driven). The BRI exports China’s infrastructure-building capacity surplus to fill infrastructure deficits in other developing countries. In the same vein, the GDI is propelled by the need to synergize China’s global engagement with its domestic economic agenda which increasingly shifts towards sustainable, inclusive and innovation-driven growth under Xi’s ‘common prosperity’ brand.

The GDI is development-oriented and relies on smaller-sized projects in such areas as public health, poverty reduction, green and low-carbon economy, digital industry and innovation.

Southeast Asian countries have unanimously expressed their support for the GDI. The leaders of Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand attended the High-level Dialogue on Global Development hosted by Xi in June 2022. All ten ASEAN countries have joined the Group of Friends of the GDI at the UN.

At the ASEAN level, the ASEAN-China foreign ministers meeting in August 2022 “welcomed the Global Development Initiative (GDI)… and encouraged participation in the GDI priority areas”. This was followed by the adoption of the ASEAN-China Joint Statement on Strengthening Common and Sustainable Development at the 25th ASEAN-China summit in November 2022, which affirmed both sides’ “commitment to development” and “priority to development undertakings”.

China has established the Center for International Knowledge on Development (CIKD) which actively promotes the GDI and concurrently serves as the Secretariat of the China-ASEAN Knowledge Network for Development launched in May 2022.

The GDI is not only an instrument of Chinese economic statecraft but also a normative vessel to promote China’s state-centric approach to development to serve its domestic political and geopolitical agenda. At the heart of this approach is the belief that ‘development’ – understood by China as economic progress in material terms – is “the master key to solving all problems”, from poverty to conflict and turmoil, in line with the Chinese traditional philosophy that “the essence of governance is livelihood; and the essence of livelihood is adequacy.” The GDI’s normative significance therefore lies in its intent and effect to “reframe narratives around governance and human rights” to counter the Western discourse that places emphasis on civil-political and individual rights.

The GDI also serves as a diplomatic and discursive tool to discredit what China views as the US and its allies/partners’ security-centric approach in their Indo-Pacific strategies. It pitches China-led win-win economic cooperation versus US-led zero-sum alliance-building.


Since ‘development’ is an encompassing and positive-sounding concept, the GDI has become China’s new rallying cry to deepen its comprehensive ties with Southeast Asian countries and ASEAN as a whole, from education to health, green transition to digital transformation, social security to economic integration. Southeast Asian countries support the GDI as they expect material benefits out of it as well as normative alignment around the ‘right to development’. However, it is premature to infer that they consent to China’s “hegemonic bargain”, i.e. enjoyment of China’s economic rewards in exchange for acceptance of China’s hegemony. China’s expectation is that confluence of economic interests would trump disagreements on security issues. Judging by the enduring distrust towards China among Southeast Asian foreign policy elites, their doubts about China’s Global Security Initiative, and their abiding interest in deepening ties with other major powers, China has a long way to go to convince Southeast Asians that looking towards Beijing is their best hope. 



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