On 23 March this year the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) – a multilateral development bank initiated by China in 2013 – granted prospective membership to 13 new countries. The new additions will bring its total membership to 70 countries, including 18 EU member states, of which Germany is the biggest contributor. Germany's investment of $4.5 billion (out of a total capital stock of $100 billion) makes it the fourth largest stakeholder after China, India and Russia, and the biggest non-regional shareholder.
Among Europeans, the UK was quickest to sign up, closely followed by Germany, France, and Italy. This was not done “in a coordinated manner”, a 2015 European Commission paper complains, lamenting the fact that the four countries did not seek representation for the Commission itself or other European institutions such as the European Investment Bank.
To sign up for a regional financing initiative led by China and opposed by the US – and to do so without EU representation – was a major step for those early European members, in particular the UK. The US warned its European allies that the AIIB, a supposedly politically neutral body designed to support the building of infrastructure in Asia, would in reality serve Chinese economic and geopolitical interests.
Germany shared these concerns but saw an opportunity for European involvement to shape the AIIB into a true international financial institution, instead of a bank with “Chinese characteristics”.
The combined voting share of the AIIB's European members is 20 per cent – less than China's 27 per cent, but enough to give Europe considerable influence over decision-making. The bank became operational in January 2016 after a lengthy process of consulting founding members and developing its structures, principles, and policies. It is very likely that the European presence influenced the AIIB’s initial structures.
One year on, it is becoming increasingly clear that Germany's bet paid off. The AIIB is not a Chinese-controlled institution. Its board of governors includes a representative from every member country (in Germany’s case finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble), and the bank is headed by Liqun Jin (previously vice president at the Asian Development Bank) and five vice-presidents.
Among the five deputies are three Europeans, including the German banker Joachim von Amsberg (formerly vice president at the World Bank). He is responsible for policy and strategy, which includes developing the AIIB’s investment portfolio, one of the most important areas of responsibility. Germany also has a seat on the non-resident board of directors, representing all eurozone member states, while the UK holds another, representing the Wider Europe group. They, along with another 10 directors, are responsible for the bank’s daily operations.
The AIIB has established its board of directors as non- resident, different to the World Bank for instance, in order to save costs. The directors are thus not based in the AIIB’s Beijing headquarters, which reinforced the perception in Western countries that the AIIB’s centralized structures give China much greater control on the bank’s operations than other countries.
However, Germany has found a unique solution: It has split the position in two and based its director at the German Embassy in Beijing in addition to the secretary based in the ministry of finance in Berlin. Berlin’s well-placed representation in the AIIB illustrates that its “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach appears to be working so far.
As for the AIIB’s operations, German impressions of its early progress have been positive. The AIIB has set high standards for its procedures, reflected in its “Lean, Clean and Green” motto, requiring that any project meet environmental and social criteria before approval.
As of April 2017 the AIIB has approved 12 development projects and total lending of roughly $2 billion. Its largest project so far saw a loan of $600 million to the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) project connecting Azerbaijan with Turkey and Europe. This is a project with strategic significance, involving several major partners such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the European Investment Bank.
Most projects listed by the AIIB are co-financed and co-financed in this way. In part this is the result of Germany's influence, as alluded to by German Ambassador Michael Clauss in an interview last year. The German view is that by cooperating on major projects with existing financial institutions, the AIIB reduces its exposure to risk and illustrates that it is willing to learn from other institutions.
For China, the AIIB has been a major soft power success, while Europe has benefited from shaping the institution's development and from positive engagement with China. Contrary to initial expectations, the AIIB has not developed into an alternative or counterweight to the existing multilateral order but has rather become a complimentary actor within that framework. The recent expansion of the bank’s membership (to include another US ally, Canada) underlines its increasing acceptance by the international community at large, and will further reduce China's majority in voting shares.
However, the AIIB is still at an early stage, with less than 100 permanent staff. 12 projects are not enough to evaluate an international institution. The German experience has been positive, but it is too early to tell whether it really will be a game changer for infrastructure development in Asia. The decentralization issue might resurface again once there is a new European director in place (the directors are scheduled to rotate every 2-3 years). And critical voices in Germany are concerned about financing projects in countries that disregard human rights.
Human rights activists recently raised such worries concerning the TANAP project, given the deterioration of human rights in Turkey in recent years. Germany abstained on the vote for this reason, but did not secure a similar vote from its fellow eurozone members. If Germany wants to push the AIIB further towards recognising and respecting human rights concerns, it will need to work harder to develop a common European position. A strong alignment of Europeans would also help to further dispel doubts about the nature of the bank and to turn the AIIB into a true international financial institution.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.