Losing Steam: China’s Overseas Development Finance in Global Energy

Overseas energy finance from China’s policy banks has been declining since 2017 due to a combination of demand and supply constraints. A rebound in 2020 is unlikely.

By Xinyue Ma, Kevin P. Gallagher

After a decade-long surge in Chinese development finance into the global energy sector, China’s policy bank lending continued to trickle in 2019. This could largely be due to a lack of demand capacity in host countries and less financing available on the China side.

Losing Steam

According to the annual update of the ‘China’s Global Energy Finance database at Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center, China’s overseas development finance from the China Development Bank (CDB) and the Export Import Bank of China (CHEXIM) in the energy sector dropped to a lowest level in a decade (Figure 1). This may seem surprising given that overseas finance was a centerpiece at the Second Belt and Road Forum in 2019, but there are number of demand and supply side factors that led to the dimming of such prospects for 2019.

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Figure 1 China’s Annual Energy Finance from Policy Banks 2000-2019,Source: China’s Global Energy Finance, 2020. Global Development Policy Center, Boston University.

As shown in Figure 1, according to information collected from public sources, in 2019, China’s policy banks issued a total of $5.3 billion to overseas energy projects, down 52 percent from the $11.08 billion in 2018. As of the end of 2019, we record a total of 272 loans given in the energy sector to other countries by these two banks since 2000, totaling approximately $241 billion and concentrated in oil, coal, hydropower, and gas.

The downturn could be due to a handful of key demand and supply side factors. Perhaps most importantly, emerging market and developing countries have hit their demand capacity. While these countries face an enormous need and financing gap for sustainable infrastructure, they have reached their limits in their ability to absorb new projects. In part this is due to the governance capacity to handle so many projects (Indonesia has 21 coal projects from China’s policy banks alone). More important however is the fact that, even before the COVID-19 crisis, many emerging market and developing countries had started to approach unsustainable levels of dollar denominated debt. According to the IMF, about half of all emerging market and developing countries were close to or already undergoing debt distress.

On the supply side China has heralded the BRI and outward finance in general, and has faced overcapacity on the mainland. So one might think there would be a surge in 2019. However, the level of dollars for outward finance has diminished in recent years. China has financed the BRI and overseas expansion through large current account surpluses, which are dwindling. Of course, 2019 was plagued by the US-China trade dispute, which slowed Chinese exports and investment into China. China’s current account balance was over 10 percent of GDP in 2007, but slid to 1 percent of GDP by 2019.

Faced with increasing risk and uncertainty, China has been tightening the reigns on the financing, including overseas financing, by strengthening its financial regulations, emphasizing prudent and sustainable lending. Since 2016, the China Banking (and Insurance) Regulatory Commission (CBIRC), People’s Bank of China, Ministry of Finance, etc. have issued a series of regulations which emphasize risks control and green finance practices. For policy banks in particular, capital adequacy regulations, monitoring and evaluation, and aligning the banks’ operations with their roles of policy and development banks are highlighted. The Guidelines for Establishing the Green Financial System published in 2017 and the Debt Sustainability Framework for Participating Countries of the Belt and Road Initiative issued in 2019 laid stress on environmental and financial sustainability of overseas financial activities. Over these years, CDB and CHEXIM leadership also frequently emphasized the caution they are practicing regarding debt sustainability, environmental impact, and risk management.

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However, it is hard to attribute China’s overseas lending decrease to external or internal political or regulatory drivers alone. Chinese policy banks are market-based financial institutions, and largely respond to market dynamics and tracks a similar decline in China’s outbound Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in energy (Figure 2).

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Figure 2 China’s Outbound FDI in the Energy Sector,Source: FDI Markets, Dealogic, 2019.

According to Global Energy Monitor’s coal projects data and BNEF’s clean energy cross-border investment data, we find commercial bank investments in the power sector has slowed as well (Figure 3).

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Figure 3 Chinese Development Finance and Commercial Finance in Overseas Coal and Renewable Energy

Globally, this downward trend of Chinese overseas energy finance has been concurrent with stagnant global energy investment and decreasing energy investment in the emerging markets – the main target of Chinese development finance (Figure 4).

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Figure 4 Energy Investment in Selected Markets, 2015 and 2018,Source: IEA, 2019. World Energy investment.

Western-led multilateral development banks (MDBs) have followed a similar trend. Total energy loans from six MDBs had been much smaller than the amount provided by CDB and CHEXIM, and only surpassed CDB and CHEXIM in 2018 after two years of decline from the two Chinese banks (Figure 5). Given these global and domestic trends of financial supply and demand of the past few years, the slowing down of China’s overseas energy finance seems to be a systematic phenomenon.

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Figure 5 Development Bank Annual Lending in the Energy Sector,Source: Development Bank Annual Reports & Project Database. Note: EBRD has not published annual report or projects for 2019. The 2019 column does not include EBRD loans.

Future Outlook

An increase in Chinese global energy finance seems even more unlikely in 2020 but could form an important part of the global recovery effort if it is re-calibrated toward the needs of the post-COVID-19 world.

China has signed a G20 agreement to freeze bilateral loan repayments for low-income countries until the end of the year, even though diplomats said that the process of identifying which loans in which countries would be eligible has only just begun and that negotiations were being undertaken with China on a bilateral basis. The Ministry of Commerce and the CDB issued a joint notice announcing potential relief for Chinese firms and projects in the Belt and Road Initiative that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The CDB will provide low-cost financing and foreign exchange special working capital loans, set up reasonable repayment grace period, open up “fast lanes” for credit granting, and provide diversified support in foreign currency financing services to “high-quality” BRI projects and enterprises impacted by the pandemic.

Nevertheless, the COVID-19 related economic crisis inflicted serious damage on emerging market and developing economies. Capital flight has been over $100 billion and exchange rates plummeted by up to 25 percent. This has increased dollar debt burdens and over 100 countries went to the IMF for finance given the collapse of global trade and remittances. The vast majority of external debt is due to private creditors and multilateral lenders, but China is a significant bilateral creditor to many countries. While Chinese finance has been relatively patient relative to the private sector finance that has fled the developing world over the last few months, China’s borrowers will be hard pressed to service their debt to China for the foreseeable future. This lack of debt service on existing loans, and the limited ability to negotiate deals due to social distancing and travel bans, prepares us with a foreseeable shortage in Chinese energy finance in 2020.

Along with multilateral institutions and other development financiers in the world, Chinese development finance will be much needed as the world begins to develop recovery programs from COVID-19, which has revealed the need for more resilient and sustainable infrastructures. Energy infrastructure is a major pillar of economic development, and therefore sustainable infrastructure should be a cornerstone of recovery efforts. Moreover, China needs to make sure that any of its debt relief efforts are aligned with sustainability and climate standards, and continue to shift its overseas development finance into cleaner and more resilient energy sources, so that this crisis does not accentuate the climate crisis.

Xinyue (Helen) Ma is the China Research and Project Leader at the Global Development Policy Center (GDP Center) at Boston University.

Dr. Kevin P. Gallagher is a professor of global development policy at Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, where he directs the Global Development Policy Center.

 

The puzzle of China’s missing solar and wind finance along the Belt and Road (Part 1)

New paper sheds light on reasons behind the lack of renewable energy lending from China’s policy banks

By Tom Baxter

From 2000-2018 China’s two policy banks, the China Development Bank (CDB) and China Export Import Bank (CHEXIM), loaned over USD 251.3 billion to overseas energy sector projects. Of that finance, traditional energy sources such as coal and hydro dominated, occupying 45.2% and 33.7% of the total finacinging respectively. Just 2.3% went to wind and solar projects.

Given that China is the world’s leading manufacturer of wind and solar power generation equipment, given that the domestic renewables sector is experiencing overcapacity, given that Belt and Road actors have been tasked from the highest levels with expanding a “green BRI”, and given the enormous energy needs and renewable potential in BRI countries, why has so little of China’s two policy banks’ overseas finance go toward wind and solar projects?

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Source: “Chinese Development Finance for Solar and Wind Power Abroad”, Bo Kong & Kevin P. Gallagher, Feb 2020

A recent paper by Boston University Global Development Policy Center’s Kevin Gallagher and Bo Kong labeled this reality a “counterfactual puzzle” and dug into the reasons for it. Why China’s Belt and Road Initiative has not led to large scale deployment of renewables as has been seen domestically in China is a question on the lips of many on the climate community, from NGOs to government staffers. Panda Paw Dragon Claw seeks to provide some insights on that critical question by digesting a few recently published papers and reports on that topic for our readers.

Is there potential for a renewable-powered Belt and Road?

In theory, both the supply and demand side for a large scale roll out of renewable energy projects along the Belt and Road are well aligned.

On the supply side, China has been a global leader in wind and solar power investment, manufacturing and deployment for most of a decade. Moreover, with the domestic market plagued with overcapacity, there is also a push factor from the supply side propelling Chinese companies to explore new markets. By as early as 2012 China’s solar PV production capacity exceeded total global demand by 33%. In fact, the overcapacity problem was in part driven by the two policy banks’ huge amounts of financing for the sector. By 2017, CBD and CHEXIM financing was behind about 40% of total installed wind and solar power in China, the paper points out.

In addition, both CDB and CHEXIM have an explicit mandate to promote the international expansion of China’s renewable energy sector. As early as 2015, a “guiding opinion” document from the State Council urged companies to “actively participate in investment and construction” of wind and solar PV projects overseas. In the same year, Deputy Director General of the New Energy Department of China’s National Energy Administration (NEA), Liang Zhipeng, publicly urged CDB and CHEXIM to assist China’s renewable energy companies’ exports, investments and expansion overseas.

This is backed up by a political vision for a “green Belt and Road” endorsed multiple times by President Xi Jinping himself. It also more broadly dovetails with China’s ambition to be seen as a key partner or even leader in global climate governance.

On the demand side, Belt and Road countries are projected to see large growth in power demand over the coming decades and an enormous market for solar and wind investment awaits, estimated at almost USD 800 billion globally. A report from Tsinghua University, Vivid Economics and Climateworks Foundation last year projected that keeping economic growth pathways across Belt and Road countries in line with the Paris Agreement’s 2 degree target could require investment to the tune of nearly USD 12 trillion up to 2030.

Banks’ caution 

In spite of the alignment of all these factors, the two banks’ appear to hold deep reservations about renewable energy projects. Via interviews with middle level staff at the banks, Gallagher and Bo are able to reveal some of these reservations.

“Not every government turns to us for financing. When they do, many of them are governments of Asian, African, and LAC countries. When they approach us for loans, they invariably prioritize financing for the development of their industrial economy,” a mid-level manager at CDB said, reflecting that the banks see themselves very much at the end of a decision making process, rather than steerers of energy project decisions.

The bankability of a project is another key concern for these policy bank insiders. With many of the country governments who seek loans for the power sector lacking the ability to subsidize and support renewable development, bankability of solar and wind projects becomes less tenable. The CDB mid-level manager noted that the bank ultimately accepts or rejects loans based on a series of indicators, including “profitability, future cash flows, and debt-paying ability, and technical indicators, such as grid connectivity and electricity transmission capacity.” Failure to meet thresholds on these indicators will decrease the likelihood of a project receiving finance.

Lastly, the banks are well aware of the difficulties experienced in China’s domestic solar and wind expansion, as well as the tumult in Europe after 2008, perhaps ingraining caution in their approach to renewables.

“Considering the amount of problems the renewable power expansion has experienced in China, it is natural these developing countries will have more problems in light of their stage of development,” said an interviewee at CHEXIM. “Because of these problems, renewable power for the moment will only remain at a demonstration stage in these countries.”

The projects

Between 2000 and 2018 CBD and CHEXIM financed a total of 11 wind and solar projects, in seven different countries. What do these experiences tell us about the nature of the banks’ renewables financing in practice?

The financing for the 11 projects total over USD 2 billion. 44% went to European countries Bulgaria, Romania and Italy, mostly in the form of M&As. 27% went to African countries, 17% to Latin America and 12% to South Asia. Finance to European countries dried up after 2013, however, after which the three other regions accounted for all solar and wind financing.

RE projects CBD-EXIM
Source: “Chinese Development Finance for Solar and Wind Power Abroad”, Bo Kong & Kevin P. Gallagher, Feb 2020

The seven countries which have received financing for wind and solar projects share a few similarities. Firstly, all are endowed with rich renewable power resources. Secondly, all have rolled out some sort of support for renewables development, aiding project bankability. For example, all seven countries have renewable installation targets and tax incentives. Only Kenya however implements a feed in tariff (FiT) system, wherein the government subsidizes a premium price for renewable power. Lastly, all seven of the countries have good relations with China and all except Argentina are official members of the Belt and Road Initiative.

The countries and their power sector investment environments also have some obvious differences, however. Gallagher and Bo divide them into two distinct categories. The first consists of the three European countries, who are primarily expanding renewables for environmental considerations, not least that the EU’s 2020 Energy Strategy obliges all countries to expand the percentage of renewables in their energy mix. The second category consists of Kenya, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Argentina. These four countries see renewables as part of the answer to power shortages, rapidly growing energy demand and energy security.

Finance for renewable projects in European countries

CDB financed all three of the solar projects in Europe. One notable aspect of these three projects is that the financing mechanism bore strong similarities to how Chinese PV companies would approach CDB for loans domestically. All four of the companies engaging in European projects, who all had existing strong relationships with CDB, sought to mortgage their project loans on fixed assets, such as the solar PV stations themselves, corporate bonds or future revenues. This is almost identical to how firms secure CDB loans in China, Gallagher and Bo note, with the major difference that in the European market there was no local government to act as guarantor, greatly increasing the riskiness of the project.

Indeed, the rollback of subsidies for renewables in all three of these European countries created major problems for the Chinese companies involved in solar PV projects there. This contributed to the bankruptcy of three of the companies, Europe Suntech, Chaori Solar and Hairun Solar, between 2013 and 2016.

“It is hard for us not to conclude that CDB may have gotten burned in all three cases,” conclude Gallagher and Bo. This early negative experience of overseas solar financing is likely to have contributed to the banks’ caution and reservation about loans for renewables projects.

Finance for renewable projects in the South

Financing for projects in Africa, South Asia (Pakistan) and Latin America (Argentina) have taken on a very different, and overall more reliable, mechanism. Most fundamentally, financing for projects sees significant government involvement, providing far greater security. In many cases, governments themselves are the borrowers.

Loans to these countries tend to take the form of preferential export seller’s credit (Argentina, Ethiopia) or concessional loan (Kenya), making up a total of 90% of all the loans to this group of countries from 2000 to 2018. At 2-3%, their interest rates are low, and repayment periods of 10 to 15 years come with significant flexibility. The authors cite the case of CHEXIM’s loan to the Cauchari Solar Park I, II, and III in Argentina, with an interest rate of 3% and a repayment period of 180 months, with a grace period of 60 months.

CHEXIM is by far the biggest lender to these “global south” countries, having issued more than USD 1.2 billion between 2013 and 2017, compared to USD 341 million to date from the CDB.

As well as a high level of government involvement, the financing deals with these countries are almost always conditional on the use of Chinese EPC in the project, emphasizing the export expansion incentives of the two policy banks.

The government-to-government loan making model in Argentina, Ethiopia, Kenya and Ethiopia has proven reliable and provided “unambiguous wins” for the two banks, Gallagher and Bo write. The problem with this mechanism, however, is that the heavy involvement of bilateral government deal making means that a rapid scale up of the mechanism is unlikely.

Cracking the puzzle

With the world off track on the global Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement climate commitments, where support for the large scale deployment of solar and wind power will come from is a critical question for the world. China, as the world’s solar and wind power leader and a country hungry for overseas markets for its industrial output, must be a key partner in meeting those goals. Just as they did in the rapid expansion of wind and solar domestically, China’s two policy banks could play a critical role, especially in energy generation capacity hungry Belt and Road countries. To date, however, that finance has been largely missing.

Gallagher and Bo’s exploration of the puzzle helps to explain some of the reasons why overseas financing for renewables from the CBD and CHEXIM has been in such short supply. Though they believe we are unlikely to see a major change in these financing dynamics any time soon, based on their understanding of the puzzle they do offer advice for those seeking to promote and attract Chinese policy banks’ support for renewable energy projects on the Belt and Road:

“For countries that want to turn to China for help with their solar and/or wind power expansion,…they will have a better shot if their governments step up to the plate and play a more proactive role in engaging the two Chinese policy banks and working out an arrangement in their favor.”

Railpolitik: the strengths and pitfalls of Chinese-financed African Railways

Ethiopia is tapping into both Chinese and Turkish financing for its railway ambitions. The difference illuminates the pros and cons of China’s model of overseas infrastructure development.

By Chen Yunnan

Chinese railways are crisscrossing the world. Driven in part by domestic competition in a saturated infrastructure construction market, Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are increasingly seeking projects overseas, constructing new transboundary high-speed rail projects across Southeast Asia, and in Africa, new standard gauge railway (SGR) projects in Nigeria, Kenya, and Ethiopia. These projects have become a way to offshore China’s excess capacity in its industrial sectors, boosting Chinese manufacturing through a ‘supply chain export’ model where railways, locomotives and equipment are offered as a package to recipient governments in Africa and elsewhere, and conditional on the generous loan finance from China Eximbank that supports them.

These projects have constituted some of Africa’s largest lending from China. Up to 2016, 31% of China’s total lending in Africa has been in the transport sector: of this, over a third went to the railway sector. Many projects feed into existing domestic and regional corridor plans, but they have also become absorbed into China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), particularly in the east African region. Railways also hold symbolic power in the China-Africa relationship. The first Chinese-built railway, the Tanzania-Zambia (Tazara) cross-border ‘friendship railway’, was built in the 1970s, at the height of the Cold War and China-Soviet tensions, when China was on a desperate search for international allies. It remains a potent symbol of contemporary solidarity and cooperation between China and its African partners.

But as this case study of Ethiopia’s engagement with China’s railway financing shows, the “China model” of supporting railway expansion in Africa comes with both strengths and constraints. Though “debt sustainability” concerns loom large in conversations about railway projects, the difficulties experienced in Ethiopia’s railway projects are more directly linked to its creditor-debtor and employer-contractor relationships formed under those deals. A parallel case of a Turkish-financed railway project, constructed sequentially after a major Chinese-line, highlights the pros and cons of the politically-oriented China model vis a vis a more transactional, commercially-motivated project.

Research for this case study in 2018 and 2019 involved several months of fieldwork investigations, including site visits to operational and under-construction railways, as well as around 40 interviews with representatives from the Ethiopian Railway Corporation (ERC), Chinese and Turkish contractors, and other managing agencies working on the project. Interviews were semi-structured, and conducted in English and Mandarin Chinese.

Ethiopia rail
Images: Chen Yunnan

Ethiopia’s Railway Ambitions

Ethiopia has had perhaps one of the most ambitious railway development schemes in Africa, leveraging Chinese as well as other foreign finance for its railway network. In 2007, the Ethiopian Railway Corporation (ERC) was created to oversee the construction of a new planned network spanning 5,000km. This network was seen as part of a wider industrialization and export-oriented growth strategy to connect major planned industrial zones across the country—many of which have Chinese involvement—to the sea port in Djibouti, which was also financed and constructed by Chinese institutions. Crucially, this is the justification on which the railway is supposed to make economic sense.

Economic potential—in generating trade and connectivity, and in encouraging technology transfer through foreign investment—is one of the main allures of railway technology. In China’s own domestic experience, the development of its locomotives industry benefited directly from German and Japanese technology. Further back, the construction of many of China’s main arterial railways, and the creation of professional railway institutions owed much to colonial-era foreign concessional railways by British and American companies. However, this form of technology transfer is not automatic. The Tazara railway’s decline after the departure of Chinese engineers showed a failure of management and the insufficiency of knowledge transfer.

As well as a new urban light rail project in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia has so far constructed two new standard gauge railway lines. The first, from Addis Ababa, crosses the border towards Djibouti (marked in red below) ; the second, a branch from the city of Awash northward to Weldiya, eventually to connect the trunk line to the north city of Mekele in Amhara (marked in green below). All these projects, including the light rail, are notable for being the first electrified railway projects in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ethiopia railmap

A Tale of Two Financiers

The Ethiopia case is particularly illuminating because at the same time, the country is tapping into two very different pools of funding and construction expertise to realize its railway ambitions.

Ethiopia’s first route, from Addis Ababa to the port of Djibouti, is Chinese constructed, by a joint consortium of China Railway Engineering Corporation (CREC) and China Civil Engineering and Construction Corporation (CCECC), and financed by China Eximbank through a loan of US$2.5bn. The second line from Awash to Weldiya, is a Turkish/European project, built by Yapi Merkezi, and financed by a consortium of lenders including Turkish Eximbank, who lent US$300mn, and Credit Suisse at a tune of US$1.1bn. While both are similarly financed through commercial loans and an EPC (Engineering, Procurement and Construction) contract, the different financiers and contractors at play has entailed a significant divergence in how the ERC and other agencies have been able to leverage their contractor and financier relationships, with implications for project implementation and for the agency and choice of recipient host governments.

One major material difference between the two railways’ construction are the different standards and technologies used between the two sets of contractors. The Chinese Addis-Djibouti line, completed in 2018, uses Chinese Class 2 technical standards, and CTCS (Chinese standard) signaling systems that controls locomotive speeds above 120km/h. The Turkish-built Awash-Weldiya line, meanwhile, employs European technical standards, including social and environmental safeguards, and employs ERMTS (European standard) signaling systems. As of 2019, the project was over 95% complete. It will likely require several more years for electrification and testing before it will become operational however, as well as a further challenge of integrating the operation of the two railway lines.

The two railway projects also show a very different creditor-debtor relationship, influenced by the nature of how the financing for the projects arrived. This in turn impacts the relationship between the ERC and the project contractors, as well as the implementation of the projects. For instance, the Turkish contractors Yapi Merkezi won the Awash-Weldiya project through a traditional competitive bid, where crucially, their promise to broker finance from European creditors for the EPC contract was key in winning them the bid. Meanwhile, the Chinese railway project was premised on a strategic bilateral relationship: financing was pledged first via high-level discussions between Chinese and Ethiopian governments. Contractors were subsequently determined on the Chinese side, through a selection process of the major national railway contractors—while this process is competitive, it is limited to only Chinese firms and decided in Beijing, not in Addis Ababa. Though the Turkish project also enjoyed export credit financing, the project due to its blended finance nature was far more commercial and transactional in its relationship between host and contractor.

The implications of this for the ERC’s scope of agency is significant. Contrary to common perceptions, the major advantage of choosing Chinese finance has been the flexibility in the financial relationship. Ethiopia has long-faced challenges in its foreign exchange that has seen it struggle to service external debts. With its Chinese partners, the ERC has been delaying payments on loans and on the management fees to the contractors for the first year since the project started operating. In September 2018, Ethiopia renegotiated the tenor of loan to 30 years from the original 15-year agreement, signalling a major concession on the part of China. With its European lenders, however, Ethiopia has never missed a payment.

In this area, Ethiopia has seen increased scope for maneuver. It has prioritized its European private creditors where it has less leeway, due to higher reputational and financial costs in non-repayment. Conversely, the strategic and political relationship that Ethiopia holds with China as a regional partner means it has been able to exploit the flexibility of Chinese finance that the bilateral Ethiopia-China relationship offers. Put simply, the political elevation of the railway as a ‘Belt and Road’ project means it is politically unfeasible to allow it to fail, giving the Ethiopian government significant leverage and flexibility over loan repayments.

The Double Edge of Chinese Loans

Despite the corollary of this, the ERC faced a bigger struggle when facing its Chinese contractors in applying pressure and getting compliance compared to the Turkish, where they had a more transactional commercial relationship. In this sense, the tied nature of financing has been a constraint to the exercise of agency. Firstly, in the inability to choose the contractor, which was a condition of financing in both Chinese funded light rail and standard gauge railways. Secondly, in the appointment of Chinese construction company representatives as the employer’s representative,, a position which generally takes the project owner’s side (in this case the ERC) in holding contractors to account on the project implementation and construction. This was the case in the Addis-Djibouti railway, where ERC were compelled to select CIEEC as the employer’s representative. This had repercussions for the level of trust and accountability between the ERC and contractors, as the ERC perceived the employer’s representative and contractors to be in a form of ‘collusion’, and not adequately representing the ERC’s interests.

The political model of finance, despite its advantages in terms of loan repayment, has led to an ineffective employer-contractor relationship. One example of this can be seen in when the project owner (ERC) tried to push the contractor CREC to fulfil a commitment to procure and provide spare parts for maintenance work on the light rail. Pushing the contractor directly was ineffective. Contractors were slow to respond to demands and, with the ERC behind on payments to the contractors for railway operations and management fees, their leverage over the firms was limited. Instead, according to the ERC’s manager on the light rail, they had to pull on political levers, calling on the Chinese embassy and economic counsellor’s office, who then applied direct pressure to the firms to order and pay for parts, and to pay for a new maintenance workshop.

This poor relationship between host and contractor also has implications for the long-term sustainability of the project, particularly for skills and technology transfer. Interviewees at the ERC expressed a sense of missed opportunity in the construction phase of the Addis-Djibouti railway, in terms of the potential for learning and knowledge transfer on railway construction for local staff. There is also a distrust of the firms’ interests in technology transfer on the part of Ethiopian respondents, who see genuine capacity building as a conflict of interest with the incentives of the Chinese companies to hold onto their intellectual property and knowledge, ensuring their continued involvement in the railways’ management. ERC has since learned from this experience and built in an engineering skill transfer component in its Yapi Merkezi deal.

The very fact the two contractors—specialists in construction, not operation—remained in the first place to take over the operations and management signals a failure of capacity building during the early phase. Significantly, CREC and CCECC were both pressured to extend their operation and management role beyond the initial six years agreed in contracts..

Under pressure from China’s Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) and the ERC, the firms have later set up a capacity building center outside of Addis Ababa, conducting in-house training sessions themselves for staff in maintenance, engineering, and even driver training. Further funding via Chinese aid have supported student exchange for ERC workers at several Chinese universities with railway specializations, and in 2018, MOFCOM pledged funds for a new railway academy, which will specialize in railway vocational training.

In this, the flexibility of this coordinated Chinese model abroad compensated for the poor employer-contractor relationship. The Chinese contractors have continued to fulfil the operation and management parts of the contract, despite late loan payments on the part of the cash-strapped ERC. The comprehensive breadth of skill transfer initiatives involved from both state actors and contractors, in financing new colleges, student exchanges and training courses, are advantages that competitors like Turkish Yapi Merkezi, cannot fulfil, and do not have an interest in.

Furthermore, these state-led and firm-led training and technology transfer initiatives offers not only the transfer of technology, equipment and contractors, but also whole systems of management: the dissemination of China’s own railway technical and managerial standards, operating procedures and protocols, all of which will have a similar impact on the development of Ethiopia’s young railway bureaucracy—in the same way that China’s own railway borrowed from European and foreign partners. This can generate potential path-dependence effects that can ‘lock-in’ advantage for Chinese firms and technology in the future. This can already be seen in the case of the Turkish-built railway, where despite the use of European construction techniques, the design of the railway itself had to conform to Chinese locomotives, and the signaling system to be integrated with the Chinese system that carries the rest of the network.

Railpolitik

The burst of Chinese lending overseas following the global financial crisis has been a boon for the development of Africa’s nascent railway sector, and a means to offshore China’s domestic capacity and promote its own railway technology. After this initial exuberance, however, the tide has been slowing down. Debt sustainability has become a keenly politicized issue in Ethiopia and elsewhere, particularly given the railway’s operational challenges. Low uptake, power supply issues, and regional ethnic grievances have complicated the operation of Africa’s first electric railway. This has become a risk to its economic profitability in the long-run—and thus the sustainability of the debt that financed it.

Notably, none of the China-financed railway projects have had independent financial feasibility studies conducted. They were driven instead by the interests of winning contracts for Chinese firms and technology manufacturers overseas, and to satisfy the infrastructure ambitions of Ethiopian political elites. However, the lingering question of the projects’ financial feasibility has induced greater risk aversion on the part of both Chinese and Ethiopian partners, seen in the skeptical comments from state insurer Sinosure, and also puts into question the future expansion of the railway network. A branch extension from the Turkish-built line from Weldiya to Mekele in the North, contracted to the China Communications Construction Corporation (CCCC), for example, has also stalled due to lack of financing. Further loans from China Eximbank will not be forthcoming until the Addis-Djibouti line can be proven to work.

As China’s Belt and Road Initiative continues to broaden in scope, the case of Ethiopia’s railways illustrates the strengths and pitfalls of China’s coordinated model of infrastructure finance. Compared to the European and Turkish project, the advantage of Chinese lending for Ethiopia’s railway infrastructure has been significant leniency and flexibility in the creditor-debtor relationship. This has enabled the ERC to expand its agency in the relationship and ability to manage and prioritise its multiple lending partners. However, there is a trade-off to this flexibility: it has not necessarily lead to a better project. In the case of the Addis-Djibouti railway, it has undermined the ability of host government agencies to oversee and control foreign contractors, which is crucial for new institutions like the ERC, as it seeks to build its own experience and capacity through working with foreign partners.

Chen Yunnan is a Senior Research Officer at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and PhD Candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She was previously a Global China Initiative fellow at the Global Development Policy Centre, Boston University. At the SAIS China Africa Research Initiative (CARI), her research focused on the rise of China in global development, particularly infrastructure finance in Africa. She has worked at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, and China Dialogue, London. She holds an MA in political science from the University of British Columbia, and a BA in politics, philosophy and economics from the University of Oxford.

 

Between the lines: new reports offer a peek into Chinese policy banks

Research teams at Chinese and international institutions collectively shed light on the practices and thinking of CDB and Exim Bank.

In the past few weeks, reports released by teams at UNDP, China Development Bank, the Boao Forum for Asia and NRDC-Tsinghua University open windows into the operation of China’s policy banks when it comes to overseas financing.

None of the reports, even those compiled by China Development Bank itself, are particularly revealing in their description of practices and policies of the state controlled banks, underscoring the general opaqueness of those financial institutions. Most of the information presented in the reports is based on already published materials (policy papers, case studies, news reports etc), and only the Tsinghua University team’s report involved interviews with policy bank executives, providing fresh, first hand information on the banks’ sustainability policies.

Nonetheless, in this desert of accessible information on Chinese state actors, the reports’ compilation of information on the banks’ operations provides some interesting additional insights into how the two policy banks attempt to align their investments with Belt and Road goals and the global sustainability agenda, if you read carefully between the lines. In particular, we get a sneak peek into their differing approaches to environmental and social standards, and how loans for risky but much needed development projects are made secure, at least from the banks’ perspective.

Policy Banks on the Belt and Road

There is already an existing literature on the roles played by China’s main policy banks, China Exim Bank and China Development Bank(CDB), in China’s overseas industrial build-up. It is still worth highlighting, however, the distinctive roles of the two banks, as described in the UNDP-CDB “Harmonizing Investment and Financing Standards towards Sustainable Development along the Belt and Road” report (hereafter as “UNDP-CDB report”). CDB, being the world’s largest national policy bank, offers mainly mid-to-long term non-concessional, commercial loans on the Belt and Road, while China Exim Bank provides mostly concessional loans and export seller’s/buyer’s credit based on market interest rates. According to the UNDP-CDB report, by the end of 2018, CDB had provided financing for over 600 Belt and Road projects with accumulated value of USD 190 billion (USD 105.9 billion still outstanding). The Exim Bank’s Belt and Road portfolio is larger in size, with outstanding loans over 1 trillion RMB (about USD 143 billion) spread across 1800 projects.

A key observation made by the UNDP-CDB report is that loans still occupy a dominant share of Belt and Road financing, as opposed to equity investment. This may be due to the fact that most Chinese financial participants of the Belt and Road Initiative are banks, whose mandate is to provide lending (especially for commercial banks). Nevertheless, the UNDP-CDB report notes that Chinese financing may have also tilted toward loans for their relatively low risk and ability to pool resources for supporting large projects, while equity investment involves longer term exposure to risks over the entire lifecycle of projects and higher transaction costs. But, as a previous blog post on this site has shown, this preference might be changing for some Chinese Belt and Road players as they become more attracted to the higher and sustained return of projects funded through equity investments.

Policy Banks on the Belt and Road
Source of information: UNDP-CDB report

BRI’s heavy infrastructure focus means that the banks’ Belt and Road portfolios tilt heavily towards energy, transportation and construction, with the energy sector the largest recipient of bank financing. The go-to data source for BRI researchers – even for established and connected Chinese research teams, such as at Tsinghua University – Boston University’s Global Economic Governance Initiative shows that coal makes up the majority of the two bank’s BRI financing between 2000 and 2017, followed by oil and gas financing.

Sustainability, Sustainability, Sustainability

One question that observers of the BRI often have is how come Chinese policy banks, despite a domestic emphasis on sustainable development, continues their funding of overseas projects with questionable sustainability, both environmentally and financially. Many analyses approach this question by looking at the banks’ “safeguard policies”, i.e. to what extent can mechanisms at the banks rule out financing “bad” projects. But an interesting insight from the NRDC-Tsinghua report “Research on Green Investment and Financing Standards for Policy Banks in the Belt and Road Initiative” (hereafter as “NRDC-Tsinghua report”) is that domestically, Chinese policy banks, particularly CDB, approach sustainability not so much from a safeguard point of view, but rather from an industrial policy point of view. China’s “green banking” policies are essentially an extension of the central government’s industrial policy. Its central components are sector-specific or client-specific credit guidelines. Through those sector-specific policies, CDB systematically channeled more than RMB 1.6 trillion (about USD 229 billion) into supporting China’s domestic green transformation agenda, which involves the set-up of low-carbon cities and smart cities, pollution control and environmental rehabilitation, renewable energy development and circular economy. In the process, CDB sets up a regular communication channel with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), a key maker of Chinese industrial policies, to screen and create a pool of bankable industrial energy saving projects.

Without the same level of industrial policy coordination and strategic guidance, Chinese policy banks have a much less clear green mandate when financing overseas, and have to resort to basic safeguards based on host country policies. According to the NRDC-Tsinghua report, this approach has clear limitations. The idea of deferring sustainability standards to host country regulations seems to have been deeply rooted in the thinking of bank executives. The NRDC-Tsinghua team’s interview indicates that those executives are fully aware of the “strictness of environmental and social safeguards developed by the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank”. But they also believe that strict standards “limit where banks can go in terms of their businesses”, as they require too much on the side of the recipients. These executives nevertheless conceded that when local standards “prove inadequate”, they are willing to bring in Chinese standards (if more robust) as a stopgap. The rationale for applying Chinese standards is to elevate their global acceptance for future technological exports.

The deference approach also applies to grievance mechanisms, where Chinese policy banks demonstrate a clear preference for complaints to be directed to recipient country authorities rather than themselves. Addressing the issue of deference, the UNDP-CDB report recommends governments and financial institutions to assess host country standards and identify countries lacking the ability to implement standards or those lacking standards altogether. Based on such assessment, capability enhancing efforts can be made in the form of technical support or modest grant financing. “Defer to the host country on standards that are already aligned with best-practice standards,” the report prescribes, “but work with the host country to boost implementation, compliance and monitoring capabilities.” This approach can “substitute practices received with limited enthusiasm”, a subtle criticism by report authors of the Bretton Wood institutions’ “conditionality” methods.

Both the NRDC-Tsinghua report and the UNDP-CDB report outline how environmental and social review is embedded in the policy banks’ internal procedurals, with slight differences, as shown in the table below. Before delving into the table, one should note that neither bank currently has dedicated offices or teams to handle environmental and social standards. The safeguard is therefore scattered ( or “embedded)” in bits and pieces across the banks’ due diligence and approval processes without any overarching overseers of how green their lending is. Interviews by the NRDC-Tsinghua team also shows that Chinese bank interviewees have little comprehension of the “Environmental and Social Covenant” approach commonly practiced by international development financial institutions, which would put clients’ environmental and social commitments into loan agreement to become legally binding.

Policy Bank ESS
Source of information: UNDP-CDB report and NRDC-Tsinghua report

The above table might give the impression that safeguards are available and working at the Chinese policy banks, as the banks themselves often argue. But as report writers pointed out, the reliance on recipient country standards mean that in regions with weak governance, such as Southeast Asia, poorly-designed projects might get greenlights. And the lack of a central policy, a dedicated staff and clear project-level standards for environmental and social issues means they are at the risk of being treated as secondary concerns at each of those steps wherein their consideration is supposedly “embedded”.

Green Loan

If the bank’s safeguards seem a bit underwhelming, the Boao Forum for Asia’s “Belt and Road Green Development Case Study” report (hereafter as “Boao report”) brings to the fore interesting details of a solar mill project that CDB financed in Zambia. At Panda Paw Dragon Claw we love graphs and flowcharts that illuminate the workings of Belt and Road actors. The Boao report did a nice job of drawing the below diagram of the parties involved in the CBD solar mill loan:

Zambia Model
Source of diagram: Boao Forum report

Based on the report authors’ description, Zambia’s hydro-powered mills for cornmeal, a staple food for the country, faced curtailed power supply due to a lack of rainfall in 2014, leading to rising food prices. President Edgar Lungu launched the Presidential Solar Milling Initiative to construct 2000 solar mills around the country to ease the pressure on cornmeal supply. The initiative, with a total estimated cost of USD 200 million, was financed through a CDB loan worth USD 170 million. The rest would be paid by Zambia itself.

Despite its green merits – the mills are solar powered and have a public livelihood objectives at its core – the loan also has clear CDB features. Based on the description of the report and news reports from Zambia, the loan appears to be non-concessional (interest rate is unknown), although CDB waived all other fees associated with the loan. It is sovereign guaranteed from Zambia’s Ministry of Finance. A Chinese EPC contractor gets the contract to build the solar mills. And Sinosure, China’s policy insurer, provides mid to long-term insurance for the loan.

Touted as green finance, the loan nonetheless shows both the advantages and limitations of CDB debt financing. Zambia is considered “high risk” in World Bank/IMF’s debt sustainability assessment, and would be advised to avoid or limit non-concessional borrowing. This may restrict the country’s ability to raise funds from international lenders, making CDB’s offering highly attractive. (In cases like this, multilateral development banks would only offer concessional loans with very low or zero interest. And market rate lending will be made to private companies without sovereign guarantee.) While the solar mills may be fulfilling a genuine development need and have a viable future revenue stream (local cooperatives would pay to use the mills), a non-concessional loan inevitably adds to the overall financial stress of a country whose 2018 debt stock stood at USD 10 billion. On the China side, CDB has thoroughly risk-proofed its loan (sovereign guaranteed and Sinosure insured) and the Chinese EPC contractor will reap the benefit of a major construction deal. But Zambia has to figure out how to make the project work in the next 15 years so that the loan can be serviced.

In Zambia, there are already signs of trouble: the President has openly expressed dismay that some of the solar mills have become “white elephants” and is urging provincial officials to take action. Vandalism and theft (of solar panels) also plague the project. “Government borrowed money which has to be paid back with interest,” says Zambia Daily Mail, “Zambia cannot afford to waste resources in that manner (referring to the non-working solar mills).”

If providing financing and construction help get projects like the solar mill initiative off the ground, there is still a distance from a true “win-win” if one side bears a disproportionate risk of project failure while the other side enjoys the safety of near-term benefits.  If the latest reports collectively highlight one thing, it is the disproportional burden Chinese financing is putting on the weak shoulders of its Belt and Road partners, be it environmental governance or debt sustainability. If BRI is to be genuinely “mutually beneficial”, fine tuning that risk-benefit equation would be a first step.

Assessing China’s most comprehensive response to the “debt trap”: the Belt and Road ‘Debt Sustainability Framework’

Ma Xinyue argues that debt financing along the Belt and Road is as much a “trap” for debtors as it is for China

One of the most significant and anticipated outcomes of the second Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing this April, was the Debt Sustainability Framework for Participating Countries of the the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI-DSF) issued by China’s Ministry of Finance (MOF). Developed on the basis of the IMF/World Bank Debt Sustainability Framework for Low Income Countries (LIC-DSF), the framework offered some response to the barrage of accusations of China’s use of “debt diplomacy” along the Belt and Road.

Behind the politicized and moralizing tone of the “debt trap diplomacy” narrative is a question over “debt sustainability”, a question which concerns the economic health of both borrower and lender. Before labeling China’s Belt and Road financial behavior as a “trap,” this complex issue deserves diving into.

This prompts us to ask some sets of questions. Firstly, is China actually creating debt sustainability issues? If so, what’s the scale and nature of the problem? Secondly, how does the BRI-DSF absorb and differentiate from the existing debt sustainability frameworks? How sound is this framework? And lastly, what is the implication of this framework on China’s overseas presence? Will it solve the problem and alleviate risks of debt sustainability? If not, what else does it take?

“Debt trap” or “creditor trap”?

China’s debt financing to other countries in the world have mounted since the end of the financial crisis in 2009. In the energy sector alone, China Development Bank and the Export and Import Bank of China have lent $245 billion to other countries between 2009 and 2018, based on calculation from Global Development Policy Center. A newcomer to the scene of development finance, China indeed brings striking volumes of loans and investment.

The “debt trap diplomacy” narrative interprets China’s overseas finance behaviors as state-driven political leverage to gain influence over other countries by bankrupting its partners and bending them to its will (see for example, John Pomfret’s 2018 opinion piece in the Washington Post). A “snappy phrase invented by an Indian polemicist”, as Chas Freeman, the former U.S. diplomat to China puts it, the narrative has been popularized by media and politicians, especially in the U.S., criticizing the Belt and Road (e.g. Mike Pence, 2018; John Bolton, 2018). The most frequently referred to case is the Hambantota Port project in Sri Lanka, which was handed over to a Chinese company on a 99-year lease. Concerns about Chinese loans have also been raised in regards to the Maldives, Pakistan, Venezuela, and many more.

Such arguments have been refuted by the Chinese government as well as some recipient country governments. Both the Central Bank of Sri Lanka and Government of Pakistan that these two countries’ debt to China are only about 10% of their external debt, a fair share of which are concessional loans lower than market rates. Officials from the Philippines, Uganda, and Sri Lanka – to name a few – have also publicly defended their debt from China. Some scholars have also exposed the narrative.

The Center for Global Development – a Washington D.C.-based think tank – made the first systematic attempt to assess the debt implications of the BRI. Using a list of BRI lending pipeline deals compiled from public sources, they estimated immediate marginal impact of potential BRI projects on countries’ debt to GDP ratio – a “worst-case scenario of future debt,” and identified eight countries where debt to China might push their debt to GDP ratio beyond thresholds of 50-60% of GDP. It also listed a compilation of debt renegotiation and relief given by China since 2000, which were further explored by reports from Rhodium Group and Oxford Africa China Consultancy – even though the debt cancelation is said to have only been for overdue zero-interest loans, which are part of China’s foreign aid program.

The China-Africa Research Institute at Johns Hopkins University (SAIS-CARI) and the Global Development Center at Boston University (BU-GDP Center) published similar but empirical analyses of the debts of Africa and Latin American and the Caribbean countries to China based on their debt profiles and recorded debts to China. These reports found that, in the majority of cases, debt to China takes up a small share of countries’ total public debt, although in a handful of debt troubled African countries (Zambia, Djibouti, for example), debt to China does take up a significant share of their external debt, and they are also among the biggest borrowers from China.

Xinyue Figure 1 v2
Figure 1. Changes in PPG debt by source for Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, and Jamaica 2004-2016, Source: Rebecca Ray and Kehan Wang’s calculations using Gallagher and Myers (2019), World Bank IDS and MDB annual reports

The shared conclusion from these reports is that BRI will not likely be plagued with widescale debt sustainability problems, even though it is also unlikely that the initiative will avoid any instances of debt problems among its participating countries. A more recent working paper published by the World Bank also attempted to evaluate the long term debt dynamics impact of China’s loans, taking BRI investment related growth into account. Availability of credible data remains a constraint for these papers. Yet of the 30 countries included in their long-term debt dynamic simulations, in only in 2 countries BRI debt financing would result in increasing debt vulnerability.

Worth noting, however, is that debt relief and restructuring is both relatively common (recorded instance of relief so far reach $9.8 billion) and tends to favor the borrower country. In this light, the “debt trap” might seem more of a “creditor trap” for China than for the borrowing countries, as Stephen Kaplan puts it when analyzing the case of Venezuela. Indeed, from a geopolitical perspective, it is strategic for China to hold leverage in security choke points in case of fundamental disruption of global stability or an outbreak of war. However, financial leverages do not automatically translate into political leverages. Venturing to confiscate its debt-financed assets would mean risking all credibility and reputation for any other international engagement.

On the contrary, China faces more risks giving away debts in financially vulnerable countries. In cases of real financial distress such as Venezuela, China’s debt renegotiation might come with more loans issued in the same country in the hope of generating revenue and recovering the previous loans. Deutsche Bank was recently reported to have confiscated 20 tons of  gold that backed Venezuelan debt, but we don’t see Chinese financial institutions making similar moves.

The Challenge for Development Finance

Public debt financing is a common practice in all countries across the world, even though typical practice of each country varies by a great deal. For example, according to IMF, as of 2017, the general government debt to GDP ratio ranges from 9% (Estonia) to 238% (Japan). As stated in the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, borrowing is an important tool for financing investments critical to sustainable development and covering short-term imbalances between revenues and expenditures. Government borrowing can also allow fiscal policy to play a countercyclical role over economic cycles.

Nevertheless, whether high debt to GDP ratios have an impact on a country’s economic performance is much-debated. Most economists agree that there are no certain thresholds or ideal levels of debt to GDP. Rather, it is the dynamics of debt that matters more. The simple logic of debt sustainability is that, as long as the rate of public debt increase does not continuously exceed the growth rate of the government fiscal balance, public debt is sustainable and will not affect economic activity in general.

Then comes the dilemma: given the urgent need to address the Sustainable Development Goals, public expenditure has to increase, but in many countries, the government’s fiscal space is cramped. Scaling up public expenditure requires debt finance, which in many cases would consume primary balance that could have been used for urgent public investment such as physical and social infrastructure development. But if done right, such financing should serve to strengthen the primary balance by facilitating economic and social development and by increasing tax revenue in the long run.

Debt Sustainability Frameworks for the Belt and Road

To “promote economic and social development of Belt and Road countries while maintaining debt sustainability”, China’s Ministry of Finance published its Debt Sustainability Framework (BRI DSF) at the April Belt and Road Forum. The BRI DSF is almost exactly based on the 2017-reviewed version of the IMF/World Bank framework for debt sustainability analysis.

As part of the IMF’s efforts to better detect, prevent, and resolve potential crises, the Fund introduced a formal DSF in 2002. To guide borrowing activities in low-income countries (LICs) in a more nuanced manner, the World Bank and IMF also launched a joint framework for debt sustainability assessment for LICs in 2005. The World Bank and IMF now jointly produce Debt Sustainability Assessments (DSA) for the applicable countries at least once every calendar year, and provide templates for these exercises. Chinese lenders could therefore use the IMF/World Bank assessments as a baseline to guide their activities.

The IMF/World Bank DSF – to which the BRI DSF is aligned – operationalizes debt sustainability management by assigning different thresholds of multiple debt indicators for groups of countries according to their debt carrying capacities, and provides risk ratings based on evaluations of the baseline projections and stress tests relative to these thresholds combined with indicative rules and staff judgment. The 2017 revision adjusted the thresholds with an effort to eliminate conservative bias. It incorporates more factors into the country classification methodology to estimate countries’ debt-carrying capacities.

All of these improvements are also incorporated in the BRI DSF. The only difference in the BRI DSF is in the stress test element. The BRI DSF includes an additional “new borrowing shock” stress test, adding greater stringency to the test.

Both frameworks adopt the same standards for identifying low income countries (based on their eligibility for concessional financial resources). As of May 31, 2019, 47 of the 131 countries that have officially signed BRI cooperation agreements with China are included in the List of LIC DSAs for PRGT-Eligible Countries. The graph below shows the distribution of debt stress risk ratings of these LICs from low to in distress. In addition, another 11 BRI countries not in risks of debt distress have been assigned suggested debt limits in General Resources Account (GRA) arrangements.

BRI Main map (v2)
Figure 2. Risk Profile of BRI Countries with IMF/WB Debt Sustainability Assessment, Source: IMF

For countries in debt stress or at high risk of debt stress, including some countries with moderate risks of debt stress, IMF and the World Bank would advise them to avoid or limit non-concessional borrowing (NCB) (or only accept in exceptional cases), and provide limits for concessional borrowing to some countries, leaving space for grants. For countries with moderate or low risks of debt distress, borrowing would be advised to be assessed on a loan by loan basis, with the option to request borrowing ceilings.

Of the 39 BRI countries subject to IMF/World Bank Group debt limits conditionality, 15 are subject to zero-NCB limit, 8 are subject to non-zero NCB limits, and another 16 are not subject to debt limits or have targeted debt limits, showing a rather balanced risk distribution. (Note that this does not represent the amount of loan granted to each group country, and thus does not accurately reflect actual risk portfolio of China’s overseas development finance.)

The Future with “Cautious Capital”

The DSF risk assessments already inform lending policies of other creditors including many Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs). With the issuance of the BRI DSF, China seems ready to adopt the mechanism too. For China, this is unequivocally a critical step in risk management for Chinese creditors and constructive response to the debt trap diplomacy theory.

According to very rough estimates using the available second hand compiled databases for the stock of China’s overseas debt finance, about 14% to 18% of China’s overseas development finance in BRI countries goes to LIC countries with debt limits, while the number of these countries (39) account for 30% of the BRI countries, indicating that those countries already receive less finance on average from China than non-LIC countries. Given that these estimates are based on flows of commitment rather than debt outstanding, some of these loans are likely to have already been paid off. Nevertheless, considering the sheer volume of China’s overseas finance, this would have been enough of a risk portfolio for China to manage, and also significant enough debt burdens for the recipient countries as well. Future credit making will require much prudence so as to gradually improve these situations.

Such caution has already been shown in the recent trend of China’s overseas development finance flows (See Figure 2 taking China’s overseas development finance in the energy sector as an example). Observers have witnessed a clear downward trend in China Development Bank and Export-Import Bank of China’s overseas energy finance since the peak in 2016. Where there is relatively reliable data, similar trends are also seen in the cases of all-sector official loans from China to Africa and Latin America. This trend also coincides with recent downward trends over all in the emerging markets and development countries, China’s stagnant FDI flows and overseas contracting activities, as well as strengthening domestic and cross-border financial and capital account regulations.

China overseas finance trend
Figure 3. China’s Annual Overseas Development Finance in the Energy Sector (million$), Source: Boston University, Global Development Policy Center, China’s Global Energy Finance Database

While the strengthening risk-management mechanism demonstrates China’s willingness for responsible engagement with the Belt and Road countries and better alignment with multilateral efforts, this trend also further stresses the inherent challenge of development finance, which carries the crucial function of correcting market failures and providing countercyclical financial resources while maintaining the ability to provide financial resources sustainability. As global financial regulation mechanisms such as the Basel Accords and credit rating agencies step up their scrutiny over development finance in the same way as commercial finance, it seems to be increasingly hard to channel sufficient financial resources to places and in times that need them the most – places where risks are also often higher.

Meanwhile, there is probably no perfect framework for debt sustainability analysis. As the effort of a DSF is to provide judgements about future macroeconomic dynamics in a scenario of debt stress, estimates of the discount factor and feedback effects of fiscal policies would inevitably be subjective, even if empirical analysis of historical data is full incorporated.

Moreover, a framework alone is far from enough. At the end of the day, what sustainable debt positions and sustainable development in general requires is nothing but soundness and sustainability of projects – financially, socially and environmentally. Risk management mechanisms cannot ignore project and social risks, as well as potential physical and policy impacts of climate change, which pose substantial risks to a bank’s carbon intensive energy portfolio

Instead of hindering the scaling up of development finance, risk management should enable development finance to strengthen vulnerable economies and generate multiplier effects over the long term to improve the status of public finance, and insure timely debt repayment. This is by no means an easy task, and requires coordination and trust between governments and the private sector.

Even though debt to China remains a relatively small share in the public debt portfolio of most countries, China has emerged as an important international creditor as the Belt and Road Initiative unfolds, and deserves to be part of the multilateral engagement in debt sustainability control. Meanwhile, given the challenges and imperfect nature of development finance risk management, a diversity of approaches could create healthy competition to get it right.

Xinyue (Helen) Ma is the China Research and Project Leader at the Global Development Policy Center (GDP Center) at Boston University. Ma has experience researching different aspects of China’s international investment with China’s National Development and Reforms Commission (NDRC), Control Risks, and China Daily. She received her Bachelor’s degree in International Politics and History from Peking University, Beijing, and her M.A. in International Economics and Energy, Resources and Environment from Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), with a specialization in Infrastructure Policy and Finance.