Greening China’s Belt and Road Initiative: From Norm Localization to Norm Subsidiarity?

Yixian Sun, Bowen Yu

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Abstract

From 2015, China began to promote eco-sustainability in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) through not only vision statements but also specific guidelines and governance initiatives. What has driven these policy changes? Bringing together theories of norm localization, norm subsidiarity, and policy deliberation, we argue that China’s move toward green BRI began as a norm localization process where environmental norms emerged in the open policy space created by China’s top leaders carrying the ambition to make the BRI a new global governance model. After adopting a broad norm on environmental stewardship, state bureaucracies found opportunities to create procedural and operational rules. A novel procedural rule-making methodology emphasizing inclusive dialogue with host countries has emerged, driven by top leaders’ pursuit of international leadership and preexisting local norms guiding South–South cooperation. With operational rules, different actors follow their preferences to localize existing international standards or develop new ones.

In 2013, the Chinese government launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a platform for global and regional cooperation focusing on infrastructure development, trade, finance, policy coordination, and people-to-people exchange. Since then, many researchers have raised concerns regarding negative environmental impacts of large-scale infrastructure development brought by the initiative and stressed the need for China to introduce stronger regulatory frameworks that promote ecological sustainability (hereinafter “eco-sustainability”) within the BRI (Ascensão et al. 2018; Lechner et al. 2018). Since 2015, China has made many efforts to govern the BRI’s environmental impacts, which are reflected at three levels, including setting broad policy goals, developing governance methodologies, and making operational rules and standards.

First, the central government published several high-level documents, most notably the “Visions and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road” (2015) (hereinafter “Visions and Actions”), that show the goal to treat environmental stewardship as an indispensable target of the BRI (Coenen et al. 2021; Zhou et al. 2018). Second, regarding the methodology to design substantial rules and policies, China has stressed a “dialogue-based” approach, anchored on inclusive collective deliberation and innovation by China, host countries, and other international stakeholders (Tao 2020). A typical example of this approach is the BRI International Green Development Coalition (BRIGC), a policy dialogue platform cohosted by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) and international partners from both the Global South and the Global North. By emphasizing the voices of and cooperation between developing countries, providing host country governments with opportunities to participate in the decision-making processes, and allowing flexibility in the rule adoption, this rule-making methodology differs from that of the West.1 Third, at the operational level, we are observing debates and uncertainties regarding some critical issues for environmental governance of the BRI, such as new areas of cooperation, standards for project design and implementation, and rules of development financing.

Hence, Beijing’s green BRI policy seems not just a rhetorical strategy. Instead, by building new institutions and redesigning projects, China has made a clear shift in policy. China’s rapid move toward green BRI seems to contrast with the limited attention it had given to environmental impacts of its overseas activities in the past. Through the lens of constructivist international relations theories, Beijing’s move toward green BRI can be seen as a process of engagement with norms regarding appropriate ways to govern environmental impacts of international development cooperation and investment adopted by Western actors like the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (Park 2005).2 In this process of normative engagement, Chinese policy makers have not only adopted key elements of some international norms—a “norm localization” dynamic—but also actively incorporated Chinese ideas, a “norm subsidiarity” dynamic (Acharya 2011).

What has led China to gradually develop this green BRI policy, which concerns not only the import of existing environmental norms but also attempts to construct new ones? We argue that different types of norm dynamics exist in three phases of China’s green BRI policy. Initially, the green BRI development was driven by the localization of the international norm on environmental stewardship due to Chinese top leaders’ ambition to make the BRI a flagship program of international cooperation; after this broad goal had been set, the norm subsidiarity dynamic kicked in, which was largely driven by top leaders’ strategic ambition and preexisting local norms guiding South–South cooperation; and finally, for the development of operational rules and standards, different bureaucracies have followed their preferences to localize existing international norms or develop new norms.3

We proceed as follows. After reviewing the literature on green BRI, we introduce our analytical framework building on Acharya’s (2011) framework of norm localization and norm subsidiarity. Considering China’s political context, we further stress the importance of local deliberation—a process of collective policy deliberation among top leaders and political actors in functional areas—in triggering the localization dynamic and (potentially) transforming the localization dynamic into the subsidiarity dynamic. We then conduct a theory-guided process-tracing study on the evolution of China’s efforts to green the BRI. By unpacking the logic of China’s green BRI policy, we advance understanding of China’s strategy for governing environmental impacts of its global activities and also China’s engagement with international environmental norms.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)91-116
JournalGlobal Environmental Politics
Volume23
Issue number1
Early online date18 Nov 2022
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2023

Bibliographical note

Bowen Yu acknowledges financial support from Shanghai Philosophy and Social Science Planning Project (grant number: 2020EGJ001)

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