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Prof. ZHA Daojiong: Trilateral Arrangements in International Development Cooperation: a Chinese perspective

Aid modality is a routine theme in academic and policy discussions about the international development cooperation system. Rightly so. On the demand side, worldwide development objectives such as those covered in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will require unprecedented amounts of financial resources, as well as other non-financial means of implementation. Examples frequently mentioned include capacity support and policy change. On the supply side, an aid provider operates in contexts familiar to and manageable to itself. Over the past several decades, efforts are constantly made to harmonize modalities among aid providers, with the notion of modality itself being a contested one (Bandstein, 2007).


Slowly but surely, China factors in international discussions about aid modalities. As evidenced in its third white paper on international aid, China places trilateral cooperation as a pillar supporting its modality, in addition to affirming the value of international exchanges. A task for further discussion is ways and means for operationalizing the very notion.


At this juncture, it is useful to remind ourselves of nuances in vocabularies of modality. Chinese language expressions seem to see the matter as mundane, as sanfang (三方) offers little to denote implied preferences in choice of word between trilateral, triangular, and tripartite in the English language. Sanfang is closest in meaning to tripartite in English, as it connotates absence of the sense of hierarchy among participants. By way of contrast, corresponding Chinese language expressions of trilateral (sanbian, 三边) or triangular (sanjiao, 三角) would each indicate a sense of inflexibility and/or maintenance of distance. In the rest of my commentary, I use the three terms interchangeably, only to note what is often presented in translated Chinese language documents as ‘trilateral’ is, as I see it, closer to the notion of ‘tripartite’ in English.


Outside China, as noted in one study, “there is still no common understandings of TRC” (triangular cooperation) (Zocaal, 2021: 583). Part of the cause comes from resurgence in the South-South Cooperation (SSC) framing of development aid programs, to which China also subscribes. For example, The United Nations (UN) working definition for TRC is “southern-driven partnerships between two or more developing countries, supported by a developed country(ies) or multilateral organization(s), to implement development cooperation programs and projects” (emphasis added. UN 2016: 5).


By way of contrast, one document of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) characterizes the modality as an arrangement “when countries, international organizations, civil society, private sector, private philanthropy and others work together in groups of three or more, to co-create flexible, cost-effective and innovative solutions for reaching the [Sustainable Development Goals] (SDGs)” (emphasis added, OECD, 2018: 3) As can be seen, it carries less of an emphasis on the ‘southern’ dimension of it, however that is defined.


A lot more can be said about modality in terms of actors involved in development cooperation. But it is effectiveness that is the common and continuous pursuit for all stakeholders. In the more recent years, together with recognition of greater levels of involvement in development by China – both public and private sector actors – there has emerged deeper interest in discussions about partnership with China.


Partnership is simultaneously a principle and a process. As development cooperation involving more than two partners evolved from the history of official development assistance, with China being a new actor, how to form the partnership is a topic for deliberation. Among the many platforms to facilitate such discussions, the Global Partnership Initiative on Effective Triangular Co-operation (GPI), created in 2016 and based in Paris, issued a report in 2019. In the GPI report “Triangular Co-operation in the Era of the 2030 Agenda: Sharing Evidence and Stories from the Field”, “facilitating” partners are traditional donors (whether they are high-income countries or international organizations), “pivotal” partners are Southern providers, and “beneficiaries” are countries regarded as traditional recipients of cooperation (GPI 2019). Such categorization reflects consensus among the development aid research communities of a majority of OECD member states/economies (Zocaal, 2021).


Research literature about China in international development cooperation usually portrays China as a challenger to the facilitating/traditional partners. Chinese scholars do not view the situation as either binary in terms of donor dynamics or opposite in philosophizing (Zha, 2014). The debate is far from settled. But it is at the same time useful to note that the purported choice for beneficiaries – particularly that pertaining to domestic politics – is often not based on the sole matter of development aid. The plain fact of the matter is that aid is but one facet of a recipient’s overall development.


Between China and EU member states and others in the OECD Development Co-operation Directorate (DAC), a discussion about the framing of China (likewise Brazil, India, South Africa) as an “emerging donor” merits reexamination. As reviews of the notion of “emergence” of economies in the international economic-political system indicate, references to “emergence” began to appear within financial circles, by way of the English term “emerging market” in the 1980s. The term effectively replaced “third-world country” and “underdeveloped country” and their subsequent clustering as “developing country”. “The notion of emergence, when used in the field of international politics, is entirely relative in so far as it is incapable of grasping certain social realities (the social insecurity of populations) and certain conjunctural situations (the economic downturn), as well as the specificity of structural changes in the international system” (Chaouad, 2016: 66). In other words, research needs to be mindful of the attraction of simplifying narrative at the cost of mastery of facts and relevant contexts for comparisons.


In any case, against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic, reconciling differences between China and OECD-DAC and other participants in international development cooperation carries added significance, not least due to the fact that economic recovery of the ‘beneficiary’ states is as significant for the world economy as that for the ‘facilitating’ ones, China included. From an academic point of view, the following points are worth pondering in continuation of discussions and debates about China in international development cooperation.


First, is there space for revisiting the categorizing of actors into “facilitating” and (versus) “pivoting” ones on the provision side and “beneficiaries” on the receiving side? Is there value in seeing aid providers – particularly in the realm of finance – as beneficiaries as well? These and related questions are important as each actor, at levels country aggregate and locality-project specific, stands to gain in knowledge about next steps. Benefits go in all directions and are often difficult to quantify in numerical terms.


Second, how can added value in capacity support be designed, if at all? Whether its organizational and human resources, experience sharing or technology cooperation, an aid project thrives and falters together with shifts in the global value chains. Sentiments toward redesigning global value chains are strong and a fact of life to deal with. But in the end, deliberate jolts to the large forces of economic and societal change works against the interests of all.


Third, how can policy change be assessed? Change is taking place, again, at various levels of operation and observation. So are global rules. Policy coherence is desirable. Still, there is value in guarding against both convergence and competition of narratives. Deliverables often elude easy measurement.


Last but not least, what can be done to facilitate more productive exchange between Chinese and other participants in international development cooperation? For example, we know that a country’s development community learns from experience of interacting with flows of aid into itself and that such learning is uneven at the agency and individual levels. Mismatch in belief about appropriate expectations is normal. Finding effective ways to manage notional differences ought to receive more attention.




Bandstein, Sara, 2007. What Determines the Choice of Aid Modalities? – A framework for assessing incentive structures. https://www.oecd.org/derec/sweden/modalities.pdf (accessed June 9, 2021)

Chaouad, Robert. 2016. Emergence: The genesis and diffusion of a notion that became a category of analysis.  Revue internationale et stratégique 103(3): 55-66.  

GPI on Effective Triangular Cooperation. 2019. Triangular co-operation in the era of the 2030 Agenda: Sharing evidence and stories from the field. Paris: GPI.

OECD. 2018. Triangular co-operation: Why does it matter? Paris: OECD.

UN. 2016. Framework of operational guidelines on United Nations support to South South and triangular cooperation: High-level Committee on South-South Cooperation (Nineteenth session). https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/826679. (accessed June 9, 2021)

Zha, Daojiong (with Elizabeth Economy). 2014. Global Development and Investment. In Nina Hachigian. Editor. Debating China: the U.S.-China Relationship in Ten Conversations. Oxford University Press. Chapter 7.

Zoccal, Geovana. 2021. Triangular Cooperation: Enabling Policy Spaces. In Sachin Chaturvedi, et al. Editors. The Palgrave Handbook of Development Cooperation for Achieving the 2030 Agenda: Contested Collaboration. Springer. Chapter 27.