On February 9, U.S. Senators Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) introduced a bill entitled the “Ending China’s Developing Nation Status Act.” If enacted, the bipartisan legislation would orient U.S. policy to challenge the designation of China as a “developing nation” in international organizations and future treaties.
While revising China’s development status may seem to be an inconsequential battle over semantics, stripping China of its “developing nation” label could impact not only how the country operates in international organizations, like the United Nations, but also how it frames its international cooperation approach to the Global South.
The senators who sponsored this legislation argue that by clinging to the “developing nation” label, China is absolving itself of its responsibility to advance the goals of international treaties at the level of a developed nation. The legislation states that the United States should refuse to enter into a treaty in which China is labeled a developing nation or receives the benefits of a developing nation under the terms of the treaty.
This argument has already proven convincing within Congress. In September of last year, the Senate unanimously passed an amendment declaring that China should not be considered a developing country in the Kigali Amendment of the Montreal Protocol, a climate change agreement that seeks to govern production of hydrofluorocarbons.
Highlighting the tension between China’s economic standing in the world and its designation as a developing country, Romney argued, “It’s absurd that, given their defense expenditures and massive amount of outbound and inbound foreign investment, China continues to be treated as a developing nation on the global stage.” Fellow Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) put it bluntly by characterizing China’s status as “a facade.”
While China could partially relent to international pressure, as it did by forgoing the benefits the World Trade Organization (WTO) grants to developing nations, it is unlikely the government would be willing to fully concede to a developed nation label. This naturally leads to the question: Why does China identify so strongly as a developing nation despite its status as the second largest economy in the world?
Congressional proponents of the bill believe that the answer to this question lies in the perceived strategic advantage that “developing” status gives a country in international treaties. While this offers a partial explanation, China has already recognized the need to “shoulder the international responsibilities commensurate with its development level and capacity.” And, as evidenced by the WTO decision, this promise appears to be more than just rhetoric.
China’s latest White Paper on international development cooperation, published in January 2021, offers an alternative answer to this question. It begins with one simple sentence: “China is the largest developing country in the world.” Throughout the 49-page policy document, which outlines the nation’s vision for international cooperation, China attempts to distance itself from what it frames as a North-South model of aid characterized by asymmetrical donor-recipient relations. By contrast, China asserts its own approach to aid is based on “the principle of mutual benefit for win-win outcomes” and declares that South-South cooperation, a mode of international development that encourages expertise sharing between countries in the Global South, is the focus of China’s international cooperation in the 21st century.
This framing is more than an attempt by the Chinese government to put a spin on its aggressive approach to international development. China’s commitment to Global South solidarity manifests in foreign assistance projects such as the FAO-China South-South Cooperation Program and collaborations with organizations such as the World Food Programme. If China was not classified as a developing nation within the U.N., it is likely that these programs would not exist.
Evidently, China strives to appeal to the developing world by fabricating a sense of unity – a unity that is predicated on China’s status and identity as a developing country. But this “us” versus “them” framing, by which China aligns with the developing world and distances itself from the traditional Western model of aid advanced by the developed world, is in danger of losing credibility.
If the United States passes legislation explicitly seeking to change China’s status, Beijing will be forced to grapple with contradicting realities: a recognition by the U.S. that its developing nation label is misleading and a dedication by China to pursuing a development agenda framed by Global South cooperation. A reconciliation of this nature would require China to either ignore pressure from the United States, and potentially from influential international organizations, in support of reclassification, or revise how it markets and conducts its multilateral engagements.