China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) concerned about environmental and developmental impacts of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have taken an early and vocal role in trying to influence the policies of the nascent Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Established in 2015 as the first multilateral bank to be majority-financed by Chinese state capital, the AIIB is being touted in the western media as ‘China’s answer to the World Bank’ (Anderlini 2016). Yet it is unclear how the AIIB will differ from its peers in practice, including in terms of its environmental and social impacts. Representatives of the AIIB emphasize that the bank’s Environmental and Social Framework (ESF) draws from the experiences of and is largely consistent with other multilateral development banks. Less optimistically, NGOs raise concerns that increased financing for infrastructure challenge their decades-long struggles with international financial institutions to mitigate environmental and social harm caused by development projects. In this historic moment of uncertainty, how are NGOs seeking to shape environmental standards and norms within the emerging AIIB? I draw on three years of participant observation and interviews at bank annual meetings and consultations with NGOs to argue that, although the AIIB’s ESF upholds environmental standards set by its predecessors, its’ efforts to be more efficient than its peers may significantly increase the speed with which the bank finances infrastructure projects. As a result, the AIIB has the potential to change the nature of NGO advocacy and reconfigure relations of economic power.