A reform to the system of voting at the World Bank in April raised China’s voting power to 4.42% from 2.78%. The change gave China the third-largest voting share in the organization – behind the US and Japan, but ahead of France, Germany and the UK. Japan’s share was decreased to 6.84% from 7.62%.
Beijing has touted the change as a sign of the changing nature of the global economy, in which China is unarguably playing a larger-than-ever role. As such, the change was sensible and timely. Few would argue that China does not deserve a stronger place at the lending body, just as it deserves a stronger place in most international organizations.
However, the importance of the changes in voting power should not be exaggerated: The US, with an unchanged 15.85% voting share, remains the only country with de facto veto power. China’s voting share will increase its voice, but it will not be able to drive policy unopposed.
At the same time, Beijing should resist the temptation to see the voting change as an implicit approval of its foreign and investment policies. It is more correctly seen as an apolitical – as far as these things can be apolitical – reflection of economic strength.
It is interesting to note that as China’s voting share increased, the share of some countries most in need of the World Bank’s help decreased. Eighteen sub-Saharan African countries, including economically important Nigeria and South Africa, had their voting shares cut, adding weight to arguments that the World Bank is unrepresentative of its neediest members.
Given China’s increasing hunger for Africa’s resources, and its growing presence on the continent, it will be important for the World Bank’s legitimacy there that China is not seen as throwing its weight only behind projects from which it receives direct benefit. This works both ways: By lending its brand to China’s investments in Africa, the World Bank can help them to avoid criticism. A small recent deal to build an office block in Tanzania, financed by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, may be a sign that China is sensitive to concerns about its African investments.
Following the changing of voting powers, Robert Zoellick, the World Bank’s president, called it "a very good day for multilateralism." As it prepares to take on a larger role, China must remember that its responsibility in the World Bank is not simply to itself, but to the global economy.