Project Description


From the launch of new multilateral development banks such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to the creation of regional and inter-regional forums such as the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa forum (BRICS), China has become an active participant in the creation of a range of new international organizations and initiatives.

Many see China’s role in institutional creation as having potentially significant implications for international order. Some warn that “China’s foreign policy is working systematically towards a realignment of the international order through establishing parallel structures to a wide range of international institutions.” For Sigmar Gabriel, the former Foreign Minister of Germany, initiatives such as Belt and Road indicate that “China is developing a comprehensive systemic alternative to the Western model that, in contrast to our own, is not founded on freedom, democracy and individual human rights.” Meanwhile, the Policy Planning Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC promotes the concept of “multilateralism with Chinese characteristics.”

The project “China’s Bid for Hegemony? China’s New Multilateral Institutions and Social Purpose in Global Governance” seeks to evaluate such claims by providing a systematic institutional topography of China-initiated multilateral institutions and their social purposes.

Project Components

The first part of the project inquires into the extent and form of Chinese-led institution building. How widespread is this phenomenon, and what is the basic ‘design’ of these institutions? Drawing primarily on rational institutionalist literature on institutional design, the project is building a novel and comprehensive dataset on China’s international institutional initiatives.

The second part of the project enquires into the social purposes such institutions serve. Social purpose can be defined simply as “the goals that are shared by members of a group” (Abdelal et al. 2006, 696) and constitutes the basic social content of international institutions. Social purpose is visible in institutions’ substantive goals and the principles underlying them, including implicit ones, and in how the participants in each institution narrate and understand the institution’s goals and rationales. Drawing on critical and constructivist approaches to global governance, the project will operationalize and measure the social purpose of China-led multilateralism.


Established institutions are assumed to reflect the power relations that prevailed at the time of their creation. At a time of rapid shifts in power, pressure emerges for international organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to adapt. By contrast, institutional creation by the main rising power may constitute a key mechanism by which the international institutional order can be adapted to fit a changed underlying distribution of power and interests.

From a Gramscian perspective, international institutions are settings where dominant powers can exercise the “intellectual and moral leadership” (Gramsci 1971, 57) that defines their hegemony, understood as a stable configuration of material power, ideas, and institutions (Cox 1981; 1983). Studying China-initiated international organizations may be informative about the social nature and prospects of China converting its material power into a regional or global hegemony.


Abdelal, Rawi, Yoshiko M. Herrera, Alastair Iain Johnston, and Rose McDermott. 2006. ‘Identity as a Variable’. Perspectives on Politics 4 (4): 695–711.

Cox, Robert W. 1981. ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory’. Millennium - Journal of International Studies 10 (2): 126–55.

Cox, Robert W. 1983. ‘Gramsci, Hegemony and International Relations: An Essay in Method’. Millennium - Journal of International Studies 12 (2): 162–75.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. Moscow: International Publishers.