This article centres around one singular yet substantively important empirical puzzle: why did the United States fail to delegitimate the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank? I argue that a crucial factor missing from existing analyses is China's rhetorical coercion. To substantiate this argument, I first reconstruct from the perspective of framing the US-China rhetorical contestation over the AIIB at the early stage. This results in the identification of seven competing frames pertaining to the purpose and procedural legitimacy of the bank: Sub-standard, Tool and Rival promoted by the United States; High-quality, Equality, Complement and Welcome Change by China. To flesh out China's rhetorical coercion, I gauge the coercive power of the frames identified before zooming in on Complement and Welcome Change and uncovering therein three coercive claims: shortfalls in Asia's infrastructure finance, weaknesses in the existing system of international financial institutions and inconsistency in the US approach to the AIIB and China's rise. These claims considerably restricted the room for the United States to engage in principled opposition, and in tandem with developments favourable to the AIIB (not least the participation of Western countries), enabled China to rhetorically coerce the United States.
- Policymakers and analysts should accord more attention to political contest at the rhetorical front. The strategic use of norm-based arguments can be instrumental in restricting the range of acceptable rhetorical and policy responses.
- International actors, not least governments, should have a holistic understanding of the diverging perspectives on China's creation of multilateral institutions and opt for a policy response aligned with widely-accepted arguments.
- Institutional status quo defenders should refrain from overemphasizing procedural standards and dismissing new (China-led) multilateral institutions altogether, primarily or solely on procedural grounds. By joining, they may be better-positioned to shape how these institutions are governed and operate.
- Proponents of new institutions should accentuate their purpose as much, if not more, as their convergence to the established standards. When an institution is yet to take shape, invoking its distinct function is a key legitimation mechanism and an effective counter to procedural concerns.
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