How China’s power companies invest overseas

China’s power infrastructure investment comes in multiple forms, all of which entail different risks

By Wang Yan and Li Danqing

Over the past twenty years, China’s ‘going-out’ strategy has built Chinese companies an international role as the major suppliers of infrastructure around the world. Within the growing stock of infrastructure that China is building up, power infrastructure, especially coal power plants outside China’s borders, is attracting increasing attention both for their contribution to energy accessibility in developing countries, particularly South Asia and South East Asia, and for their climate impacts for decades to come (“carbon lock in”).

Articles, reports and academic papers have been written about this phenomenon as the world seeks a way to engage China in a dialogue about its coal build-up overseas. But before any serious conversation can happen, understanding the true nature of Chinese power companies’ operations overseas is key. Chinese companies’ role in supporting the development of coal power plants overseas comes in multiple forms, ranging from design and construction to part-ownership. Since 2013 Chinese companies have had an increasing preference for equity investments, a form of investment that entails both increased potential profit and increased risks. This blog tries to illuminate the landscape that the multiple forms Chinese coal power investments are made in.

Types of investment

A commonly overlooked aspect of Chinese – or for that matter any country’s – overseas infrastructure investments is that there are a range of investment model options available for companies and banks. Each option entails different types of contracts, partnerships, responsibilities, potential profit margins, and, inevitably, risk. To get a true understanding of how Chinese coal plant construction companies operate overseas operate, it is important for us to understand these different models.

Engineering, Procurement, Construction (EPC) was the dominant form of overseas investment for Chinese companies until 2018. An EPC contractor will carry out the detailed engineering design of the project, procure all the equipment and materials necessary, and then construct a functioning facility or asset as specified in the EPC contract. EPC+Finance (EPC+F) is one common derivative form of EPC, in which the project owner also wants the contractor to solve project financing.

Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) and Build-Own-Operate-Transfer (BOOT) are typical types of public-private partnerships (PPP). In a BOT or BOOT project, normally large-scale, greenfield infrastructure projects, a government will grant a company the right to finance, build, own and operate the project with the goal of recouping its investment. Once investment has been recouped, the control of the project will then be transferred to the government after a specified time, normally 20 to 30 years.

Equity investment refers to companies’ investing in other projects or companies in the form of cash, tangible or intangible assets, in order to obtain an intended return in the future.

In the power sector, EPC revenues come from project payment as the plant function fulfills the contract, while BOT/BOOT rely on power purchaser’s continuous buying electricity from the plant during the project period, which is ensured by a Power Purchaser Agreement (PPA). Thus, long-term and steady project revenue is a determining factor in securing project financing.

In many cases, Chinese companies will set up a special purpose vehicle (SPV) via equity investment, registering it in the host country. The SPV becomes the project operator and engages with local and day-to-day businesses.

Chinese companies, therefore, play multiple roles in overseas power plant development – as investors, owners, designers, contractors, and operators.

From EPC to equity

Since 2013 Chinese companies have significantly increased equity investment in overseas coal power. In 2018 equity investment for the first-time outpaced EPC, the traditional investment avenue, in terms of newly-installed capacity. In the past decade, a total 10.8 GW of coal capacity had gone online with the backing of Chinese equity investment, 96% of which came after 2013 (Fig. 1). This shift from EPC contractors to equity investors with strong financing capacity appears to be the trend for future overseas coal power investments.

PPDC-coal-1
Fig. 1. Coal power projects (capacity) with Chinese equity investment and EPC over the past decade.

Why the shift?

The transition from EPC to equity investment fits into the broader arc of China’s ‘going-out’ strategy, which began in 1999 and increasingly encouraged outbound investment, besides merely product and service export. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has spearheaded China’s ‘going out’ since 2013, and in that time China’s outbound direct investment (ODI) in BRI countries has occupied a growing share of China’s total ODI, with 12.5% of China’s direct investment going to BRI countries in 2017. Despite a 19.3% year-on-year decrease in China’s total ODI in 2017, direct investment in BRI countries witnessed a 3% growth.

Equity investment brings more return for investors. As owners of a project, equity investors can potentially get higher returns in the long term. Equity investment also brings flexible options to investors. They can invest not just with cash, but also with current assets like materials and fixed asset. This offers both flexibility and lower cash flow risks.

In addition, equity investment, especially from state-owned companies, plays a credit checking role. It tends to enhance borrowers’ credit and lenders’ confidence and willingness, as well as attracting other types of lenders for project financing, such as seed banks and foreign capital banks. This means that equity investment can help a project to raise more money in less time, potentially lowering the overall cost. Lastly, with ownership of the project, equity investors take initiative for project management and risk control, and receive more rights to local resources, which also serves to lower the cost of the project.

In terms of coal plants, there are three key drivers underpinning the transition: global market trends, the company’s transition needs, and China’s top-down support.

1) The long-term benefits of exploring new markets, integrated industry chain and decision making power brought by equity investment. Equity investment allows companies to lock in long-term partnerships, acquire local resources in a lower-cost way, and ensure quick or steady growth in a foreign market.

Many Chinese companies are currently transitioning from EPC contractor to whole industry chain service providers. China Machinery Engineering Corporation (CMEC), one of China’s oldest and largest coal plant constructors, noted in its 2018 yearbook that the company has tried to diversify and widen its industry chain in recent years, with more projects conducted via ‘EPC+Investment+Corporation’ model. As part of this transition, the company has also formed partnerships with GE in multiple overseas equity investment projects.

2) A more competitive environment for the EPC-driven model meets the rising need for private investment in public projects. Driven by a desperate need to ease power shortages, while worried about tighter public funding and debt burdens, host countries are embracing private investment into public projects, or EPC contractors with its own financial support.

For example, in 2015 Pakistan updated its 13 year old electricity investment policy to allow for 100% foreign capital ownership of project companies, increased allowed return of investment, and “take or pay mechanisms”, an electricity payment mechanism which will ensure investors’ returns. The updates were all intended to increase potential profit margins for foreign companies, attract foreign capital, and reduce electricity generation cost.

3) Top-down financial support and policy signaling for equity investment overseas. Boosting overseas equity investment in power sector markets has been highlighted in a number of China’s diplomatic agreement and official BRI documents.

For example, in China’s new cooperation with Africa on infrastructure development, the integration of investment, construction and operation has been underlined in developing power, transport and communications projects. These investments are supported either by loans from China’s policy banks, or from commercial banks. China’s concessional loans require Chinese companies’ holding shares in overseas projects.

More equity investment, more risks?

But higher returns come with a higher risk profile. Along with the responsibilities of designers, constructors, or equipment-providers that normally come from the EPC model, the equity model also brings Chinese investors in on feasibility study, business negotiation, financing plan, construction, to long-term operation and management with a variety of foreign and domestic stakeholders. Chinese companies, along with banks and insurers who give financial support, are more attached to long-term steady returns and interlocked in multiple project stages, exposing them to complex risk patterns. Fig. 2 illustrates the risks exposed at each stage of an equity power project.

 

PPDC-coal-2
Fig. 2. Stages and risks in project development (see Feb 2018 article in Infrastructure Economics 《建筑经济》

Most of China’s overseas coal power investment is in developing country markets (Fig. 3), which frequently present higher investment risks due to financial insecurity, political unrest, sovereign debt or uncertain business environment, causing uncertainties for China’s overseas investment.

PPDC-coal-3
Fig. 3. Total capacity of coal plants with Chinese equity investment in different regions. South and Southeast Asia are hotspots for China’s overseas coal investment, and together host 94% of Chinese equity-invested coal plants.

One of the most pressing challenges is changing or stricter electricity investment policies, which are already leading to project delays or cancellation. In Indonesia, for example, a gap between forecast electricity growth rate (8.3% for the period 2017-26) and actual growth rate (3.6% in 2017) has resulted in the postponement of 22GW of planned electricity generation projects.

In addition to electricity sector regulation changes, investors should not underestimate the risk posed by strengthening environmental regulations. As the principal culprit for air pollution and climate change, coal plants are in a particularly vulnerable position as governments race to strengthen their environmental regulations as they develop. This is also likely to cause project delay or cancelation, resulting in companies’ breach of agreement, economic loss or reputation loss. Meanwhile, many countries are aggressively making strides to speed up their energy transition and incubate renewables markets with ambitious policy goals, as in Vietnam for example. Public opposition, including protests and court cases, are also a major risk that can lead to project postponement or even cancellation, as happened to the Lamu coal plant in Kenya, for example.

Chinese companies’ investment in coal power plants overseas comes in multiple formats and is evolving as both domestic and international dynamics change. To become forward-looking investors, Chinese companies must raise their awareness of regional energy transitions and ongoing climate change action, and incorporate such aspects into their investment decisions. Beyond that, Chinese banks, insurers and supervisory bodies should also pay closer attention to the risks their overseas projects tie them to.

For anyone working on the issue of Chinese overseas energy investment – a “make or break” issue for global climate efforts – these types of investment arrangements and the opportunities and risks they entail are essential details. Policy makers, researchers, students and journalists should all take note.

Wang Yan and Li Danqing are both climate campaigners with extensive experience in Chinese overseas energy investment

 

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.

Special Monthly Round-up: BRI 1.5

The 2nd Belt and Road Forum in Beijing ended with a set of software patches to BRI 1.0

The 2nd Belt and Road Forum ended on Apr 27 with one message that everyone watching seemed to have picked up: change is needed. In the official parlance of the Chinese government, change is expressed in terms of traditional Chinese painting: from a big stroke, impressionist approach (大写意) to a style of precision and craftsmanship that focus on minute details (工笔画). In the words of Christine Lagarde, the head of IMF, change means “BRI 2.0”, with a focus on increased transparency, open procurement with competitive bidding, and better risk assessment in project selection. And in the words of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, a recipient country leader, change points to a new phase of the signature China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that places “greater emphasis on socioeconomic uplift, poverty alleviation, agricultural cooperation, and industrial development.”

BRF2

International coverage of the high-profile event depicts such rhetoric as a sign of China “allaying fear” of the BRI or “rehabilitating” the initiative’s image. Indeed, President Xi’s keynote speech at the forum indicates that China is responsive to external views of the initiative and its policies in general. In fact, the second half of his speech was widely read as sending messages to the West on key trade-related issues. In that sense, the shift can be regarded as an operational system upgrade responding to customer demand. But rather than a major upgrade as Lagarde’s 2.0 metaphor suggests, the changes made are far from a complete overhaul or reinvention.

For one thing, contrary to what leading BRI pundits and think tank experts have been advocating, there is still no sign that China is going to develop an actual “operating system” (permanent institutional structure with explicit mandates/rules) for the trillion-dollar initiative. Those advocates argue that the “under-institutionalized” BRI will be too easily hijacked by narrow economic interests of players involved. And the only thing close to an institutional upgrade coming out of the Forum is a set of recommendations made by the international advisory board to the Belt and Road Forum, which suggests China to consider turning the liaison office of the Forum into a full-blown secretariat for the BRI, or following the examples of G20, OECD or the Financial Stability Board to set up inter-sessional mechanisms to ensure coordination and continuation during intervals of the biannual Forum.

Absent of a major shift of the BRI’s modus operanti, the dozens of initiatives announced at this year’s Forum are more like patches to fix “bugs”. Below are some of those patches.

Framework for debt sustainability

Among the outcomes of this year’s Forum, the Debt Sustainability Framework for Participating Countries of the Belt and Road Initiative published by China’s Ministry of Finance is probably the most obvious attempt to fend off criticism of the BRI, in particular accusations of it pushing excessive debt burdens onto other developing countries.

The new analysis framework was developed based on the IMF and World Bank’s Debt Sustainability Framework for Low-income Countries (LIC-DSF). It rates a country as low, moderate, or high in terms of its risks of being in debt distress, taking into account its debt coverage, macroeconomic projections, debt carrying capacity, among other factors.

Despite being modelled on the IMF-World Bank framework, the MoF tool applies some customization to the methodology that carries a distinct “BRI signature”. For example, when it comes to the relationship between public investment, economic growth and debt, the MoF framework is distinctively bullish about the potential for productive public investment to drive up economic growth in the long run, “while increasing debt ratios in the short run.” In comparison, the IMF, in a 2017 Guidance Note about the LIC-DSF, sounded more cautious on that same topic:

“Proponents of scaling up public investment maintain that productive investment, while increasing debt ratios in the short run, can generate higher growth, revenue, and exports, leading to lower debt ratios over time. At the same time, high economic returns of individual projects do not always translate into high macroeconomic returns. DSF users should therefore carefully assess the impact of a scaling-up of public investment.”

The view that large-scale debt-driven infrastructure investment is “worth the buck” is at the center of a Chinese developmental model that is being promoted through the BRI. And it is not without its value as Bretton Woods institutions like IMF and World Bank moved away from large-scale infrastructure building, leaving a gap in the developing world. And China’s engagement with established multilateral financial institutions is in fact less antagonistic than conflict-filled news reports tend to depict. In April 2018, the People’s Bank of China launched a capacity building center in collaboration with the IMF, providing training for leaders and officials from countries involved in the BRI. One of the training courses the Center offers is on managing debt sustainability. According to the People’s Bank’s website, countries responded very positively to the course, in particular those that are already using the LIC-DSF: Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ghana, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Myanmar and Vanuatu.

But like other patches that are offered at the Forum, the MoF’s framework is a voluntary tool. It is not clear how the analysis can be integrated into lending decisions in the future, except for the possibility that a Multilateral Cooperation Center for Development Finance might adopt it.

Environmental governance of the BRI

Another area where the Forum is clearly responding to external pressure is how it handles the BRI’s massive environmental footprint. “Green” elements were given very little attention two years ago at the first BRI Forum. But the situation is noticeably different this time, as “green” elements were reflected in both the leaders’ speeches and the final ‘list of deliverables’. While criticism of China “lacking real will to address the challenge of climate change as it relates to the Belt and Road” still abounds, climate factors are being incorporated into initiatives announced at the Forum, albeit (again) on voluntary basis.

The “Green” updates rolled out this time include the formal launch of the International Coalition for Green Development on the Belt and Road and the signing of the Green Investment Principles.

The controversial Coalition, first conceived by the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment in collaboration with the UN Environment, was one of the green highlights this year. Consisting of 26 countries, 8 international organizations, 65 non-governmental organizations and academic institutions, and 30 businesses (as of Apr 2019), the Coalition is an “open, inclusive and voluntary international network” to ensure that the Belt and Road brings “long-term green and sustainable development” to all concerned countries, according to the UN Environment’s description.

China’s environmental policy for the Belt and Road has been criticized for being vague and rhetorical. The formal launch of the Coalition at least provides some articulation on what aspects of “green” is China considering for the BRI. According to a Terms of Reference (ToR) circulated to participants of the Forum, the Coalition’s main mission consists of the creation of 3 platforms: a platform for policy dialogue, a platform for environmental information, and a platform for green technology transfer. The activities (divided into core and thematic) are mainly facilitative in nature: policy dialogue workshops, sharing best practices, publishing regular “BRI green development reports”. The structure of the Coalition, with its 10 thematic partnerships, opens a channel for external stakeholders to influence the environmental governance of the BRI on issues from climate change to biodiversity. After all, China’s Minister of Ecology and Environment is its co-chair. But actual mechanism for it to give policy inputs or affect project decisions is unclear. As one participant puts it: “All the measures will probably lead to more green projects, but not necessarily less bad projects.”

BRIGC
Structure of the International Coalition for Green Development on the Belt and Road, from the Coalition’s Terms of Reference

The Green Investment Principles, co-developed by the China Green Finance Committee and the City of London, and signed at the Forum, follow the same facilitative style. According to a People.cn report, the initiators of the Principles will establish a secretariat that offers services for the signatories, which has the China Development Bank, China Exim Bank and Silk Road Fund among them. The services include a database for green projects under the BRI, a carbon emission calculator for development and investment projects, and a knowledge sharing platform.

Project portfolio

One of the most direct tests of all the upgrades and safeguards would be an examination of the actual portfolio of projects that China is supporting in the countries involved. The 2nd Belt and Road Forum provides a glimpse of where BRI is heading in this regard, even though it is understandably too soon for all the initiatives announced at the Forum to translate into tangible influence on project decisions.

Wang Yan from Greenpeace’s China office created a nice list of project deals signed during the Forum. Not surprisingly the list tilts heavily towards conventional infrastructure, comprised of mostly energy projects (concentrated in coal and hydro), railway and urban complex development. It is worth pointing out, though, that within the full list of outcomes, items do show renewable energy projects in the pipeline (e.g. a trilateral cooperation agreement signed among China, Ethiopia and Sri Lanka on renewable energy development).

The thing with infrastructure is that their long shelf life means projects built today will have long lasting effect for decades to come. Well-intentioned policy initiatives and safeguards are only useful if they kick in as early as possible in a project’s lifecycle. Five years and hundreds of projects into the BRI, we are getting a major update from the App provider that will likely only fix bugs of future features if components of the update get activated in a timely fashion.

The Politics of Vexed Capital: China’s Railway Projects in Southeast Asia

Alvin Camba develops a conceptual model to explain why certain Chinese overseas projects progress while others get stalled

By Alvin Camba

Why do some Chinese large-scale projects progress while others have been unable to do so? By interviewing political elites, Chinese officials, and members of various social movements, my ongoing research is currently examining four comparable cases of Chinese railway projects in Southeast Asia: South Rail in the Philippines (2017-), Sino-Thai high-speed railway (2013-), High-speed rail (HSR) in Indonesia (2016-), and the East Coast Railway in Malaysia (2016-2018). My preliminary research finds that the continuation or progression of China’s major railway projects depend on the coalition that Chinese actors form with host state actors. The success of these coalitions depend on (1) whether or not they hold the power resources to implement the project, which depend on the institutional structures of the state; (2) or how immediately vulnerable to electoral cycles or political turnover they are, which could usher in a new regime that reneges on the previous agreement with China.

To demonstrate the framework, this blog post focuses on the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) case in Malaysia, which was started by former Prime Minister Najib Razak, suspended by the new Prime Minister Mahathir, and recently resumed ahead of the 2nd Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. The case is for critics a classic example of a developing country “pushing back” against China’s debt-driven Belt and Road Initiative. But my analysis will show that it is more of a case where a recipient country tries to leverage the BRI for economically viable and politically strategic projects that are with international credibility and domestic legitimacy.

ECRL-Malaysia
The ECRL will link the wealthier Malaysian states to the developing eastern regions. Source: Alvin Camba

In the ECRL case, a political elite coalition between Najib Razak and the Chinese firm (China Communications Construction Company, CCCC) was initially formed, which concentrated power resources in the hands of the United Malay National Organization (UMNO). Even though the project only began in 2016, it has made substantial gains in terms of land acquisition, rail track construction, and project coordination with state governments. Due to the centralization of power in the hands of the federal and state governments, the ECRL has made great progress relative to projects that have started earlier, such as Indonesia’s HSR and Thailand’s Sino-Thai Railway. Some officials of the “Alliance of Hope” (Pangkatan Harapan) attempted to derail the project but Najib’s power resources and UMNO’s control of the government limited these contentious activities.

Nonetheless, since the ECRL started seven years into Najib’s term, the project became very vulnerable to electoral turnover. This made Mahathir and the Alliance of Hope concentrate their efforts on winning the national elections, which capitalized on the 1MDB scandal, and the complicity of Chinese firms to corruption.

Numerous Chinese-financed projects were later linked to a massive rent-seeking venture for Najib. For instance, the MPP Malacca-Johor pipeline and Trans-Sabah Gas Pipeline (TSGP) were most likely used to illicitly transfer funds into the 1MDB fund by overpricing the project cost, which would have burdened Malaysia’s coffers, constraining medium- to long-term benefits and limiting welfare gains.

When Mahathir won the election, the state’s juridical power and political power resources were transferred to the new government. This led to the cancellation of both pipeline projects. However, the Malaysian government needed to compensate the contractors $2 billion USD or 88 percent of the total worth of both projects for just 15% of project’s completion rate.

The ECRL was more difficult to scrap because of the actual economic need to link the wealthier Malaysian states to the developing eastern regions. Furthermore, the Kuantan Industrial Park, which houses the Chinese firm Alliance Steel’s investment that employs locals and generates a multiplier effect on the state’s local economy, stands to benefit from the ECRL’s construction.  These considerations led to the negotiations to bring down to cost by roughly one-third. As of April 2019, the project is back on track.

AlvinGame2
Alvin Camba develops a conceptual model to explain why certain China-financed rail projects progress when others get stalled

The fates of rail projects in three other Southeast countries are all different depending on how a coalition between China and host state actors negotiate their way through political dynamics involving multiple obstructing and rent-seeking local elites. In Indonesia, Jokowi Widodo’s Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Railway (HSR) started early in his term and China offered better project terms in order to win the deal over Japan. Project timing, limited geographical coverage, and Jokowi’s political position enabled the project to progress. In the Philippines, the project started at the beginning of Rodrigo Duterte’s tenure, forming a coalition between the Duterte administration and the Chinese firm. However, regional-local elites lobbied the Duterte government for train stops in their own provinces. For the elites, economic activity and political gain will cluster cities or province who receive the stop. The Duterte government and the Chinese firm mediated these conflicts, promising livelihood projects and electoral support in return. In Thailand, a coalition between the Yingluk Shinawatra and the Chinese state agreed on a train project in 2013. However, Thailand’s internal political dynamics, particularly Prayut Chan-o-Cha’s coup and the emergence of the military regime, effectively deposed Yingluk and delayed all the major projects. The Chinese government was willing to renegotiate with Thailand, but Prayut wanted better term than the ones that Yingluk acquired. Recently, new terms are being renegotiated.

In sum, the progression and delays of these major railway projects depend on the coalitions that the Chinese government and firms form with host state elites. Contrary to perceptions of China “dictating” tough terms, host countries do have some agency to decide which projects to finance, terms to accept, and conditions to execute.

Alvin Camba is a China Initiative Fellow at the Global Development Policy Center and a Ph.D. Candidate at Johns Hopkins University. He works on the political economy of Chinese foreign capital and elite theory. His works can be found at alvincamba.com

Belt and Road insiders: What we think about “greening” the initiative

Interviews with banks and SOE executives shed light on what motivates Chinese players to (not) go green in BRI projects.

By Huang Wei and Tom Baxter

When it comes to issues arising from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), be they debt burdens, local community engagement or environmental sustainability, external stakeholders are often more confident with prescribing what China “should” do than offering convincing arguments about “how” Chinese actors can be made doing the right thing. One of the key barriers of translating visions into actions is the lack of access to the actual thinking of Chinese actors involved in the BRI, thanks to the opaqueness of the Chinese political, business and financial institutions.

With the aim of overcoming that very barrier, my team and I recently conducted a round of intensive interviews with practitioners who are at the forefront of China’s overseas endeavors, with a focus mainly on energy investment. The interviewees include large state-owned construction firms; financiers and insurers; and third party consultancy firms that provide accounting and legal services to the Chinese companies. We would like to use this rare window to understand more about the driving forces and roadblocks for greener investment along the Belt and Road.

The Chinese government appears to be increasingly willing to engage in discussion on the environmental sustainability of BRI, with numerous high level officials, including President Xi himself, calling for the Belt and Road to be a “green” initiative. In May last year a government document containing “green belt and road” guidelines was issued to promote such a vision. The document, however, consists of non-binding “guidance”, rather than legally enforceable regulations. In addition, being issued by multiple government departments, it left confusion more than guidance in its wake.

In the twenty months since that document was issued, advocacy groups, think tanks and even industrial associations have worked to flesh out and clarify the government’s intention, producing a proliferation of “voluntary compliance standards” and initiatives targeting everything from banking practices to corporate social responsibility.

But to what extent are such policies actually “greening” the BRI? Are “voluntary standards” and “initiatives” shaping the behavior of Chinese actors participating in the initiative? What is the real impetus for green investment along BRI? These are crucial questions that need to be addressed.

The interviewees were asked a set of questions that focus on their decision making process with regard to environmental standards, the motivations behind those decisions and their perceptions of “Green BRI” in general.

This article will not list out their answers in full. Rather, it attempts to pull out some of the main insights and common themes in order to shine a light on the thinking of key Chinese players when it comes to introducing higher standards for sustainability in BRI projects.

GreenBRI
The Chinese government appears to be increasingly willing to engage in discussion on the environmental sustainability of BRI, Image: cbcgdf.org

The Profit Equation

The most evident conclusion from the interviews was that banks and companies generally don’t have motivation to go beyond recipient countries’ local standards and regulations as they still operate within the simplest market logic of profit maximization.

When we posed the question: How do you decide on your choice of environmental standards for a project? The majority of interviewees would understand the question as, what do higher environmental standards mean for profit.

During the initial process of bidding and negotiation for an overseas power plant, for example, companies need to come up with a project design plan that is both most economically desirable and that ticks the boxes of local environmental requirements and electricity demand. It is an extremely practical process, similar to solving a maximization problem under constraint that economics students are often faced with at school — choices are computed based on input of numbers into a standard formula. Inputting a higher standard will automatically shrink the profit margin and absorb capital that would have been earning money elsewhere. This serves to weaken a company’s competitiveness in a highly competitive field.

It is often argued that environmental risk need to be factored into this calculation for its potential negative impact on profit. But, as was evident from our interviews, when companies and banks talk about “environmental risks”, they are in fact referring to costs and penalties arising from non-compliance, which are real monetized indicators. “Risk” would only influence choice if it is considerable and tangible enough to be input into the profit formula, such as the risks of fines and penalties many heavy industries in northern China face since the introduction of strict emissions standards.

Shielding against market risks

A commonly used argument by critics of fossil fuel-based BRI energy projects is the potential risk of “stranded assets.” Expensive projects may end up as facilities inutilizable as environmental standards and climate change mitigation measures become more restrictive over time. Companies and banks are therefore urged to look beyond short term profit calculus. To many of our interviewees, however, this argument did not ring any alarm bells.

Companies tend to already see themselves as shielded from such long-term risks through the means of contracts at the project planning stage. One example of such a contract is the Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) signed during the initial stages of investment in power plant projects. The PPA provides certainty in future price, volume and time period for electricity sold, meaning that any further cost of retrofitting would be borne by the recipient country government, not by companies. Whether or not local governments are aware of the risks that are left on their shoulders in signing such agreements is another question, and one that certainly deserves digging into.

In addition, the most common form of Chinese investors’ participation in overseas project is a short term, “turn-key” EPC (Engineering, Procurement and Construction) contract, which ends immediately upon construction completion. Under an EPC arrangement, long term risks are not a consideration. Longer term contracts, such as Built, Operate, Transfer (BOT), do exist and entail a different set of considerations where longer term risk is a more important factor. The BOT model tends to be more common in investments in overseas hydropower projects.

As for the banks, lending is prioritized in capital structure and potential risks are usually covered by insurance companies such as Sinosure, meaning that banks are sheltered from revenue shock, significantly eroding the effect of the stranded assets argument.

Reputational risks

Advocates for a greener Belt and Road have also argued that companies’ potential reputational gains or losses, and political recognition that could confer, are a key factor in project decision making. Given the state-owned nature of the vast majority of Chinese companies and banks involved in Belt and Road projects, China’s domestic politics, including image and reputation, no doubt do play a role. Our interviews showed, however, that such factors have yet to be seen as tangible indicators for companies to enter into their profit formulas. In fact, contrary to conventional belief, going beyond market norms would put a company under greater scrutiny, which may or may not lead to greater recognition, but certainly adds extra risk to company operations.

Who holds the keys to change?

What and who can motivate for greener investment then? Well, it’s a billion-dollar, and potentially billion tons of carbon, question. But the interviews did uncover some of the key players and factors that are most influential over Chinese companies’ behavior. In my experience, the below “keys to change” are generally not well understood in the communities working to green the BRI.

SASAC:

The State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) is an institution under direct management of China’s State Council. It is authorized to act as a shareholder of SOEs with responsibility over their performance evaluation. The SASAC performance evaluation is, then, the closest thing to a tangible measure of SOE reputation. It also gives SASAC distinct power over the career progression of heads of SOEs.

According to interviewees, the performance evaluation (which is not publicly available) still relies heavily, if not entirely, on profit indicators, leaving SOEs with zero incentive to jump out of the profit maximization mindset. Indicating SASAC’s influence over SOE investment behaviour, one interviewee said: “If SASAC could incorporate ‘green’ as quantitatively assessable criteria into the performance evaluation, it would be implemented in no time among SOEs.”

Sinosure:

Sinosure is the single Chinese state-owned insurance corporation that provides export credit insurance. The fact that many advocacy groups categorize Sinosure insurance as financing is somewhat misleading, as insurance is actually more like the pre-requisite of financing during real investment cycle.

More often than not, Sinosure’s involvement in a project is what gives it the green light. Banks would rarely say yes to an overseas project without the nod from Sinosure to assure that political and market risks associated with projects far away from home are covered. With few alternatives on the market, Sinosure holds a near monopoly over “life or death” insurance for Chinese companies’ overseas investments and, by end of 2017, had enabled over 2.9 trillion RMB of overseas financing.

Given their vital role as risk-covering agent, there is huge potential to lobby Sinosure to be more attentive to environmental risks.

MSCI:

Morgan Stanley Capital International Index (MSCI) is the most commonly used equity market index for investment portfolio managers around the world. Since 2017, MSCI has been going through a long process of integrating China A-shares (Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchange traded RMB shares) into its Index. It is a milestone for China as the integration would enable publicly listed Chinese companies to gain access to international capital.

Significantly for our purposes, after being included in MSCI a company would be required to undergo Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) assessment and classification. Good performance would allow that company to be included in an ESG index called “the Green Leaders Index”. Any underperforming companies would be removed from that index. This would help portfolio managers who are wary of the risks behind bad ESG performance in emerging market to come to informed decisions. Given MSCI’s large client base, the impact of this indicator on a company could be significant.

Currently, many listed companies that underperform on ESG are seeking solutions from consultancy firms who provide advice on how to improve. This dynamic is not only an engagement chance for those who work on greening BRI, it also has broad implications for environmental advocacy within China.

Signs of Change

Despite the seemingly unbreakable profit calculus of Chinese SOEs, there have been some cases of projects adopting standards higher than the bare minimum required. Three special circumstances stand out:

  1. When there is willingness of a recipient country to go beyond average standards, such as for a flagship project. An example would be the ultra-supercritical Hamrawein coal power plant soon to enter construction in Egypt. For this mega-scale project, the Egyptian government has required higher standards and promised to pay for a higher electricity price. In return, the Chinese financier will give a discount on loan terms.
  2. When a project is backed by a syndicate loan that involves international banks, the project will have to reach the highest standard within the syndicate group (normally that of multilateral development banks such as the World Bank or European Bank for Reconstruction and Development). This effectively forces Chinese financiers to adopt higher standards than they would normally be required to.
  3. Some projects with extremely handsome rates of return will consider raising standards for a win-win outcome on both profit and reputation, according to one interviewee.

Where next for Green BRI?

No systematic change will come from special circumstances, however. To effectively leverage for a genuinely green BRI, stakeholders will have to consider closely how they engage with the dynamics of Belt and Road investments as well as carefully consider what exactly they are advocating for. As one interviewee bluntly put it, his company would only act differently if green requirements are translated into “departmental rules from the government, SASAC performance evaluation criteria, and clear reward-penalty mechanisms.”

The takeaways from the interviews are clear:

Firstly, stakeholders must always be mindful of the communication gap. In order to influence investors, advocates for a greener BRI must be able to speak to them in their language. This requires us to question our assumptions and make sure to study the nitty-gritty of the investment process.

Secondly, “profit” is clearly front and center in investors’ decision-making process. We should not put “green” on balance, hoping that it would outweigh “profit”. Instead, we need to put “profit” on balance, and think about how “profit” can be outweighed by environmental and other factors.

Lastly, outside of profit calculus, there are two strangleholds for investors: one is an assessable “green” benchmark and a clear reward-penalty mechanism from supervisory bodies; the other is a requirement for higher standards from capital providers. This has put the keys to unlocking “green Belt and Road” in a selected few players’ hands. Advocates would do well to focus their efforts on those who hold the keys.

This blog is co-authored by Huang Wei and Tom Baxter. Huang Wei was a Climate & Energy campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia. Her expertise is in China’s overseas energy investment, coal and air pollution in China.

** This article was updated on 27 December to clarify that ESG assessment for a company would occur after inclusion in MSCI, rather than as a prerequisite for inclusion. **

September monthly round-up: great power mentality

FOCAC exposed tension between Chinese overseas involvement and domestic public opinion

The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was a highlight of the past month and once again put China’s overseas involvement under domestic spotlight. Held in Beijing from Sep 3-5, the extravagant event brought high-level representatives from 53 African countries to two days of dialogue, deal making and celebration of China-Africa friendship. In his opening speech, President Xi Jinping announced a $60 billion package to finance development in Africa and spelled out the “5 NOs” and “4 CANNOTs” principles (五不四不能) that would lay the foundation for China-Africa relationship in the coming years. The principles mainly served as a re-affirmation of China’s long-standing non-interference, “no-strings attached” aid policy and a warning to third-party forces trying to undermine the relationship.

In many senses the forum delivered what was intended of it. Politically, it confirmed China’s commitment to the continent as a benevolent partner. Economically, it produced a long list of major infrastructure and investment deals between African stakeholders and their Chinese counterparts. And it even paid environmental dividends for the host city by bringing a week of sapphire blue sky (dubbed “FOCAC blue” by the city’s residents) which ended as soon as the forum was over.

But the high-profile forum also exposed a chronic tension between China’s overseas engagements and its domestic public opinion, a pitfall that policy makers usually strive to circumvent. As soon as China’s $60 billion pledge to Africa was made public, the Chinese Internet was buzzing with murmurs and whispers of disbelief and sarcasm. Under Weibo posts that featured President Xi Jinping’s speech announcing the renewed pledge, where comments were often censored or outright blocked, netizens reacted with emojis of dismay and disapproval.

FOCAC Weibo
Under Weibo posts that featured President Xi Jinping’s speech announcing the renewed pledge, netizens reacted with emojis of dismay and disapproval.

“The controversy around aid to Africa is not so much about whether such investments deliver good returns. It’s a way to express domestic frustrations. The Chinese public can be generous if their own lives are comfortable,” said one commentator on Weibo.

FOCAC happened at a tricky time when the Chinese public was anxious over a series of domestic measures on taxation and social insurance that would affect the pockets of millions of Chinese enterprises and individuals. Among those policies rolled out briefly before FOCAC, shifting the collection of pension fund deposits to the tax authority, widely perceived as more stringent in its efforts, was interpreted by the media as the government’s attempt to fill an enlarging national pension hole which would result in a net reduction of many people’s monthly take-home salary. China’s high social benefit charges have been a burden on enterprises hiring large number of employees. For years, corporates try to dodge their share of pension payments by lowering the reported salaries of their employees, while worker are more than happy to pocket more take-home salary that they can dispense on their own terms.

The government’s revenue-grabbing move touched off widespread complaints from the society, and the high-profile $60 billion pledge to Africa (equivalent to almost 400 billion in RMB) understandably received a fair amount of trolling. To some extent this represents the worst nightmare of Chinese policy makers: Chinese financing overseas is pitched directly vis a vis its domestic fiscal policies. For a long time, the Chinese government has been low-key (to the extent of being secretive) when it comes to releasing its foreign aid figures, largely because of concern over domestic criticism. Senior aid workers have openly complained about the public’s hostility towards Chinese aid overseas. The Chinese Political Compass, an online survey that maps Chinese ideological spectrum online, lists the foreign aid question in its questionnaire as one of the 50 issues dividing and polarizing the Chinese Internet.

Experts believe that the Chinese public is misguided. Wang Yiwei, a scholar at Remin University in Beijing and an expert on the BRI, claimed in a Weibo post that majority of China’s pledged financing would require return on investment. It’s not free lunch. And based on China’s track record, returns on Chinese investments in Africa are “unparalleled” by its investments elsewhere. “Chinese are not stupid. They won’t rush to a place if it doesn’t mean economic opportunities for themselves,” Wang proclaimed, “those who spread rumors about Chinese involvement in Africa are trying to create tension between the public and the leadership.”

Wang was mainly referring to the previous round of Chinese pledge made at the 2015 Johannesburg FOCAC, which also amounted to $60 billion. Within that package, only $5 billion was grant money that did not require repayment. The rest was either concessional loans (loans with below-market interest rates), or injection into equity funds that are largely market-based and generally seek (modest) profits. The new $60 billion package announced on Sep 3 is made of $15 billion of grants and no-interest/concessional loans, $20 billion regular loans, $10 billion private investments and another $15 billion dollar injection into special funds.

Information from Africa seems to bear out the claim that China talks more serious business in Africa than people generally perceive. Bright Simons, president of the Ghana-based MPedigree Network, wrote that while China appeared generous with pledges, it was strict with actually unlocking them into real financing. Of the 2015 pledge, only 2/3 (45 billion) had actually come through, most of which “in the form of sovereign-backed, natural resource securitized loans.” Zimbabwe was particularly bad at translating Chinese pledges into actual financing, redeeming just 2.5 billion of Chinese funds from over 33 billion promised over the past two decades. Angola did much better in this regard largely due to its oil reserves that allowed a reliable means to service its loan payments to China.

Weibo commentators who consider themselves endowed with a long term view urge policy makers to disregard public sentiments and stay on course of its African strategy: “You should stick with  things that are fundamentally right.”

On the other hand, the Global Times‘s editor in chief Hu Xijin reminds readers that they should equip themselves with a “great power mentality:” “China will not be able to maintain its global stature today if it does not fulfill its obligations as a great power,” he wrote, “the idea that foreign assistance is immoral as long as you still have poverty inside the country represents agrarian era thinking and cannot guide our grand practices today.”

Like it or not, the architects of China’s grand schemes along the Belt and Road would probably have to tango with domestic public opinion for a while.

Letter from Ghana: Africa embraces its China partnership reluctantly

African leaders, more than a “benevolent” China, should set the tone for Africa-China relations, argues Kofi Gunu

By Kofi Gunu

When I first became aware of China’s growing influence in Africa, I was only ten years old. Ghana was set to host the 2008 African Cup of Nations, the continent’s biggest soccer competition, and work was progressing steadily on a new multipurpose stadium in my hometown, Tamale—one of the tournament’s host cities. Our remote savannah town swirled with rumors about the Chinese construction firm undertaking the project and the files of Chinese foremen who marched chain gang-style to the construction site each morning. I recall my Catholic priest explaining once that the contractor, apparently frustrated with the negative work ethic of his Ghanaian laborers, had replaced all but a few of them with convict labor imported from China.

Later I would learn that this was nothing more than a myth, one of many urban legends concocted by locals trying to make sense of the strangers in our midst. But for a long time afterwards, the imposing Tamale Stadium stood in my young mind as a symbol of China in Ghana and Africa, at once shrouded in mystery and impossible to ignore.

The scale of China’s involvement in Africa is a point of surprising contention. Western politicians and media, alarmed at the significant diplomatic, economic, and military roles China has assumed on the continent, often exaggerate its efforts. Chinese experts, eager to assuage these fears, hasten to cite studies which show that Chinese investment and aid to Africa is safely smaller than the West’s.

However, nothing can obscure the truth that China is Africa’s biggest economic partner now and into the foreseeable future. China is currently Africa’s largest trading partner. Additionally, according to the Bilateral FDI database and McKinsey, China is poised to surpass the US as Africa’s largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) stock within the next decade Chinese official development assistance (ODA) and other official flows (OOF) to Africa together added up to 6 billion USD in 2012, making China the third largest country donor to the continent. Besides, since 2012, loan issuance by Chinese institutions to African governments has tripled accounting for approximately one-third of all new sub-Saharan African government debt.

A recent groundbreaking report from Mckinsey & Company, that sought to evaluate Africa’s economic partnerships globally, showed China among the top four partners for Africa across five key dimensions: trade, investment stock, investment growth, aid, and infrastructure financing.

MCKinsey
Source: Dance of the Lions and Dragons, McKinsey & Company, Jun 2017

To objectively analyze China’s footprint in Africa, we must first arrive where reality is. The reality is that China is indispensable to Africa’s development agenda.

This reality is one that many on the continent acknowledge but with mixed feelings. A recent large-scale public opinion survey showed that ordinary Africans appreciate the infrastructural development that closer ties with China has brought. Chinese-led projects and businesses also employ several million people across Africa. African policymakers, a growing number of them Chinese-educated, increasingly look to China, rightly or not, as a model for catalyzing growth and eradicating poverty.

These positive reviews notwithstanding, legitimate questions persist about the motives behind Chinese assistance. Resource-for-infrastructure deals, which may make perfect financial sense to Chinese bankers, set off loud alarm bells on a continent whose vast mineral wealth has been used to enrich everyone but its own people. Citizens decry a political elite that appears incapable of looking beyond narrow political considerations to safeguard Africa’s interests. With a few notable exceptions, African governments lack defined China strategies, master plans for translating increased investment in priority sectors into sustainable development or for ensuring technology and skills transfer. They are waiting for Chinese firms to take the initiative. This lack of confidence in our leaders, far more than a crisis of explanation as proposed in a blog entry by Shou Huisheng earlier this week, is the main reason Africans remain apprehensive about this budding partnership.

Take, for instance, tensions sparked by the influx of hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrants to Africa in recent years. In Ghana, these tensions are felt most acutely in the small-scale mining sector, where the arrival of Chinese prospectors  with machinery and heavy equipment has transformed a hitherto unsophisticated industry into a major driver of ecological catastrophe. Galamsey, as the practice is commonly known, has caused irreversible damage to protected forests and polluted vital water bodies. Matters got to such a point that the government was forced to impose a blanket ban on small-scale mining last year and to arrest several Chinese operators, over the objections of the Chinese ambassador. But far from being placated, many Ghanaians continue to point fingers at the authorities for permitting Chinese nationals to flout the country’s laws in the first place. To quote a caller on a Ghanaian radio program: “The Chinese government will never allow us to go to their country and trash it. Why does our government allow it here?”

The fate of China-Africa relations depends on Africans like this caller who are willing to hold African governments accountable for protecting the continent’s interests as they engage with China. As African heads of state convene in Beijing next month for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), ordinary Africans are expecting them to show more agency in articulating a clear and well-prioritized China strategy. China’s presence in Africa will produce win-win dividends, not because benevolent China pre-ordains it, but because farsighted African leaders insist on it.

Kofi Gunu is from Ghana. He graduated from Tsinghua University’s Schwarzman College in 2018 with a master’s degree in global affairs and public policy. Prior to that, he held roles at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Global Green Growth Institute. He is currently completing a year of national service in Accra.

 

China in Africa: discovering the “China Model” through empirical evidence

Empirical research depicts a picture of Chinese involvement in Africa different from common perception

By Shou Huisheng

Africa is a continent where many Chinese ideas about investment and foreign aid are being piloted. As a result, China’s experience there is valuable for its involvement in other developing countries, particularly those along the Belt and Road. Since the early 2000s, “China in Africa” has been a major focus of international attention. The focus of the discussion is on the “China model” as reflected by the patterns of Chinese investment and aid. This blog tries to summarize that discussion, and outline how the international community, in particular Western countries view Chinese involvement in Africa. It is hoped that a better understanding of the discussion will help China improve its practices in other developing countries.

Common Misconceptions

Relying on empirical studies and statistics, many Western scholars have objectively evaluated China’s contribution to African development. They recognize that China’s infrastructure investments and foreign aid in African countries have fundamentally changed their developmental path. Many also acknowledge the uniqueness of China’s “unconditionality” approach. They believe that the “no strings attached” method does indeed give agency back to African countries trapped by Western conditional aid in the decades following World War II.

But such views tend to dwell only in academic circles. In government and public opinion, negative perceptions of Chinese aid and investment prevail and persist. In this regard, Rex Tillerson’s comments are quite representative. Before the former US Secretary of State visited Africa in March this year, he made a speech criticizing Chinese involvement in Africa. “Chinese investment does have the potential to address Africa’s infrastructure gap, but its approach has led to mounting debt and few, if any, jobs in most countries,” he told his audience. “When coupled with the political and fiscal pressure, this endangers Africa’s natural resources and its long-term economic political stability.” Later that week, in Ethiopia, he reminded African countries to “carefully consider” the terms of Chinese investments and the “predatory” model behind them.

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Former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressed disapproval of Chinese involvement in Africa on Mar 6, 2018. Photo courtesy US Embassy in Senegal.

Some experts consider Tillerson’s views to be “singing the same tune” as Hillary Clinton, when she visited Africa in 2011 and 2012, even though things have changed much since then. But such views remain popular today. In sum, the “predatory model”, as understood through such a lens, means three things:

First, that China is promoting neo-colonialism in Africa. It supports proxy regimes, “divides and conquers” African countries, and bases investment and aid decisions on diplomatic and political considerations. Cheap Chinese loans make African countries dependent on China’s economic largess. Chinese investments mainly target primary resources and land, creating an unhealthy economic structure and unbalanced trade in recipient countries. Short-term prosperity may become a long-term trap.

Second, that Chinese investments actively seek corrupt and autocratic governments to work with. Unconditional Chinese aid in fact provides a free pass to these regimes. In other words, China’s autocratic government is actively looking for its own African proxies through aid and investment.

And last but not least, that the Chinese government and its corporations disregard local environmental, social and cultural concerns. They turn a blind eye to labor rights and the interest of minority social groups.

The real model in statistics

The negative perceptions are persistent, but they are not evidence-based. In contrast, some Western scholars have done long-term empirical studies of China’s presence in Africa. They have collected data on Chinese aid and investment, run fact-based analyses and come to conclusions different from popular perceptions. The AidData database developed at William & Mary College, and the China Africa Research Initiative led by Prof. Deborah Brautigam at Johns Hopkins University are two major sources of such analyses. Even though the data quality and methodology could be improved, these quantitative studies do complement the more anecdotal case studies and observations we often see.

Below are a few key observations from the empirical studies:

First of all, Western media has generally overstated the scale of Chinese investment and aid in Africa. People are made to believe that Chinese involvement in the continent is way larger than that of the West. A wide range of figures about the stunning scale of Chinese finances in Africa have been floating around, but many have been proven to be wrong. In addition, Western media often gives the impression that China’s Export Import Bank provides more loans to Africa than the World Bank does, despite the fact that the World Bank remains Africa’s largest development finance provider since 2010. These exaggerations do not just create anxiety in the West. They may also mislead African countries into believing that Chinese loans are easy to get.

The second observation from empirical data is related to resource grabbing. In fact, only 10% of Chinese loans to Africa goes into oil and minerals. And much of that is concentrated in just a few countries. The biggest loan in this area was offered to Sonangol, the state owned oil company of Angola. On the other hand, 56% of Chinese loans flow into transportation, electricity and telecom. In other words, China invests more in African infrastructure than natural resources.

The third notable fact is that roughly one third of Chinese loans require or allow African countries to repay in energy, minerals or agricultural products. China calls such arrangements “resource-backed loans”. These are often the target of “resource-grabbing” criticism in Western media. But in reality, even though the Chinese government and companies purchase large quantities of energy and mineral products, they seldom control the ownership of such resources. For instance, even if China imports 49% of Angolan oil, most of the country’s oil is controlled by American companies, with Chinese firms controlling less than 10%. The main purpose of having loans repaid in commodities is to hedge against financial risks, rather than controlling resources. This is a reasonable arrangement, given China’s own experience of attracting foreign investments with the same approach in the early years of its Reform and Opening. From as early as 1975, Deng Xiaoping encouraged commodity-backed investment deals with Japan, which allowed China to get access to much needed funding for development. China repaid much of those Japanese loans in commodities throughout the 1980s and 90s.

Data also shows that the destination countries of Chinese policy loans are no different from those of the World Bank, despite perceptions that they predominantly go to countries with rich resources and corrupt governments. Between 2000 and 2014, Ethiopia was the second largest recipient country of Chinese loans in the continent. The country isn’t particularly rich in natural resources, and China’s involvement there is mainly in building industrial parks, driven by the country’s large population and potential market size. Over the same period, Ethiopia was also the World Bank’s top borrower in Africa.

There also appears to be no strong correlation between an African country’s political ties with China and the likelihood of receiving Chinese aid and investments. Zimbabwe traditionally has a strong tie with China. However, it does not even make the top ten list of Chinese lending in Africa. Moreover, unlike ODA, China usually does not cancel a country’s loans. Chinese policy banks and commercial banks usually choose to extend a loan or lower the interest rate to deal with payment issues. Even Zimbabwe, widely seen in the West as China’s proxy regime in the region, complained about how difficult it was to get a cancellation of debts. Chinese bank officials have made it clear that they don’t waive debts against market principles.

Orange and Apple

And finally, the data tells us to differentiate numerous types of Chinese finances in Africa. In the West, people tend to group Chinese money all in one basket and consider it all directed by China’s diplomatic and political priorities. But Chinese ODA and commercial loans follow different logic. Statistics from AidData show a very weak correlation between Chinese ODA and a country’s natural resource endowment. It also has very little to do with political systems or governance capabilities. This is in line with the non-intervention principle that China upholds.

Western countries’ ODA tends to go into African countries with large populations. Chinese ODA is not, however, tied to population size. The one clear feature of Chinese aid is that it leans more towards low-income African countries. These characteristics indicate that Chinese foreign aid is more development-oriented than political or commercial-oriented.

Chinese commercial lending, however, is different. The same analysis from AidData shows that it has a much stronger propensity to go after natural resources, thanks to the Chinese market’s large appetite for African resources. They are also more likely to be associated with corrupt and autocratic regimes. Researchers at AidData offered two plausible explanations. First, some Chinese companies and government departments do regard corruption as a “lubricant” to commercial activities, and have brought certain problematic domestic practices to Africa. Another explanation is that Chinese commercial entities are less risk-averse than their Western counterparts, as commodity-backed arrangements and the likes effectively reduce risks in investing in such countries.

Both explanations have some validity. And the two factors could indeed work together. Considering that the economic growth of the continent in the past 20 years has been driven largely by energy and resource demands from China and other emerging markets, rather than the ODA or investments from Western countries, it is reasonable to state that Chinese commercial lending, with its distinct features, are better suited to the pragmatic needs of African countries. Being a “business partner” with corrupt governments is something ideologically repulsive to many Western actors. Convincing Western society that this could be overall beneficial to African development is a huge challenge for China. And for the moment, China should do its best to make its ODA and commercial investments more transparent in Africa.

To be clear, the main reason for the lack of statistics-based, quantitative research on Chinese aid and investment is the low transparency on the side of the Chinese government. Researchers have observed that existing statistics actually tell a quite positive story about China’s involvement in Africa and have suggested the Chinese government to be more upfront with collecting and releasing statistics. But apparently China still has lots to worry about when it comes to transparency (one of the biggest concerns is possibly domestic public opinion, strands of which see China’s involvement in Africa as “handing free gifts to other countries” while many regions of China are still relatively poor). Short-term improvement of the dataset is therefore unlikely. Nevertheless, the government should attach more importance to the matter and begin to invest more into setting a more quantitative and objective basis for assessing Chinese aid and investments overseas. The recent setting-up of China’s international aid agency (CIDCA) is a welcome move to facilitate the process.

Dr. Shou Huisheng is Senior Fellow at the Statecraft Institution, Research Fellow at the National Strategy Institute, Tsinghua University. Dr. Shou received his doctoral degree in political science from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The blog is based on a recent speech he made recently.

“Bullet proof” policies on the Belt and Road

by Sam Geall

Famed anthropologist Marilyn Strathern, after a long career writing about Papua New Guinea, later turned her attention to the practices of university life in the United Kingdom. In particular, Strathern realized that the “(unanalyzable) nonsense” of university mission statements she encountered day-to-day were similar to a number of objects, including magical shields, that she had written about in her Melanesian fieldwork. Drawing on the anthropological literature, she compared these bullet-point-strewn documents to civil war fighters in Mozambique, whose marks on their chests were said to be “vaccinations” against bullets. In her terms, they were “protective aversion tactics”.

The relevance of this occurred to me recently in an unusual context: reading an excellent new overview of Chinese financial institutions’ energy investments, Policies Governing China’s Overseas Development Finance: Implications for Climate Change, by Kelly Sims Gallagher and Qi Qi at Tufts University, in Boston – and it has continued to resonate for me, as I’ve travelled to meetings in recent months in Latin America, Europe and Southeast Asia about Chinese overseas impacts.

Tufts

In short, the idea of the magical document seemed familiar in confronting the great raft of Chinese government and trade-body documents – “guiding opinions”, “guidelines”, “measures”, “provisions”, “notices” and “circulars” – that cover overseas investments, and occupy much of our time and discussions as analysts, activists or other actors trying to understand or influence the path of these financial flows. Specifically, the report brought home how effective this documentation has been in occupying or averting the gaze – when they have been largely ineffective in actually shaping investment.

Of these many categories of document, write Gallagher and Qi, only “guiding opinions” and “guidelines” include enforcement mechanisms for non-compliance. But they still do not have teeth. These mechanisms might include a deduction in the annual inspection score or “a record of ‘bad credit’”, perhaps even the potential loss of business qualification if the enterprise has “violated the relevant laws and regulations and caused serious consequences”, but there is no detail on how this might occur – and it has not. Instead, as Gallagher and Qi put it:

“So far, no companies have been publicly reported to be punished due to environmental problems related to overseas investments, and the bad credit list is not made transparently available, so it is hard to determine the extent of non-compliance without field research and independent verification.”

For all the work that has been done developing these documents, writing and discussing their likely effects and possible implementation, it seems oddly obscure, and seldom noted – other than in this excellent review – that there have been no penalties for non-compliance in these many attempts to “promote” (or “encourage”, or “guide” etc.) a greener Belt and Road. As the authors put it:

“the fragmented measures taken during this period are not sufficiently comprehensive to have effectively internalized the substantial environmental externalities to bring about real stimulus in green investment.”

As the authors note, this is a far cry from the comprehensive and enforceable industrial policy put forward domestically in China, which has spurred the extensive restructuring of investment away from polluting industries and towards innovation and cleaner technology. The result is that while China’s coal consumption appears to be in long-term decline, between 2001 and 2016, Chinese financial institutions supported the construction of more than fifty coal-fired power plants abroad that were either under construction or operational – the majority of them using carbon-intensive sub-critical technology. And this is despite the Chinese government’s commitment to “strengthen green and low-carbon policies and regulations with a view to strictly controlling public investment flowing into projects with high pollution and carbon emissions both domestically and internationally” in the 2015 U.S.-China Joint Statement on Climate Change.

For Gallagher and Qi, the answers lie in further tightening of the policies government overseas investment, in focusing on bank rules, forming industrial policy that favors China’s most innovative industries “going out”, and in encouraging recipient countries to adopt strong environmental rules at home. For me, the report may also caution against over-emphasis on the proliferation of Chinese government documents that thus far characterized the overseas investment debate, when other approaches – be it legal challenges, civil society and media collaboration, new models of activism – might warrant greater attention.

Sam Geall is Executive Editor of chinadialogue.net, and an Associate Fellow at the Chatham House Energy, Environment and Resources Department. He is also Associate Faculty at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex, UK

Green Evolution: can China’s new multilateral banks make Belt and Road more sustainable?

by Calvin Quek and Lauren Huleatt

In his articulation of the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), President Xi outlined an international vision that connects economic, security, cultural, and development themes. However, across China’s policy-making machinery, Chinese bodies associated with supporting the initiative face formidable challenges in realizing this vision.

The foremost challenge is this: how to bridge Xi’s new international vision with domestic priorities. On the one hand, Xi’s vision calls for multilateralism, win-win partnerships, and sustainable development. On the other hand, China’s domestic priorities, most clearly articulated in its five-year plans and industrial policies, have seen a shift towards stronger central government control over all aspects of the economy, particularly of China’s state-owned enterprises.

Thus, the external optics of the BRI can be confusing. Despite the strong public display of domestic support for the BRI theme, there is as yet, no single coordinating authority body in China. China’s newly announced State Aid Agency does not appear to be immediately operational or influential, and incumbent Chinese institutions are likely jostling for influence, each pushing their own version of a program that they believe adheres to Xi’s goals.

This dissonance is particularly apparent in the field of development finance, where China’s new crop of financing institutions operate in a field that was previously the domain of more traditional and conservative players. Here, even though they are all associated with the BRI, the China-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (NDB), operate in an observably different fashion from China’s largest policy banks, the China Development Bank (CDB) and the Export-Import Bank of China(EXIM Bank).

A bumpy, but hopeful start

Recent news that the AIIB is considering financing solar power in one of the riskiest countries on earth, Afghanistan, is the latest sign of how it is charting its own course and surprising skeptics along its path. Famously proclaiming to be “lean, clean, and green” at its inception, it continues to be small, with less than 150 staff, has set up a compliance team that reports to the board, not to management, and has so far avoided financing any mining, oil, or coal projects. Over in Shanghai, the NDB has similarly attempted to match sustainability rhetoric with real action. At its first annual meeting in 2016, it announced financing for five non-fossil fuel renewable energy projects in its member countries, and has committed 60% of its funding towards renewables – a target that few of its multilateral banking peers have aimed for.

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However, both are far from perfect. The AIIB’s small size inhibits its capability, and its shareholders, particularly from borrowing countries, privately demur about the bank’s slow rate to lend commensurate with its invested capital. Since its establishment two years ago, the bank has only committed USD $4.4 billion, far below its stated objective of USD $10 – 15 billion per year for its first five years. This undershooting of expectations may either be a display of valuing quality over quantity, or be indicative of how “lean” may also mean prohibitive. Further, the bank has also faced criticism from civil society. Its energy policy trails some international peers in setting restrictions on coal power finance, and a few of its projects have raised some concerns among NGOs over environmental and social risks.

While the NDB has deployed more shareholder capital relative to paid-in capital, committing USD $3.4 billion in its first two years, this might have come at the expense of disclosure, due process, and policies, which so far lag that of the AIIB. In addition, despite the strong initial momentum, a combination of economic and political turbulence in several of the five-nation BRICS bloc may have dampened collective interest in the NDB project. It is also an ongoing question whether the bank can truly expand lending beyond its five-country mandate.

Crucially, even if the NDB and AIIB are representing a shift in China’s funding of sustainable development, they are minnows in both total China’s commitments to development finance, and as a share of projects identified with the financing into the BRI. As of year-end 2016, the AIIB and NDB together made up only 1.4% of the estimated USD $292 billion estimated outstanding loans or equity investment into BRI countries.

Yet despite their small size, the new multilateral development banks have become almost synonymous with the BRI, and have become both the poster children and the punching bags for everything that is perceived to be right or wrong with China’s growing assertiveness. Few seem to realize how small their piece of the pie actually is compared to more established domestic players. In response, both the AIIB and NDB have remained at arms-length on having an explicit connection to the BRI; The AIIB has said that it “maintains a qualified relationship to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)” and the NDB has said it “sees [BRI] as something that will clearly spur economic activity in the region”.

Nonetheless, their size and initial bumps notwithstanding, the trend being outlined by these two newly-created organizations does broadly tilt towards the spirit of multilateralism, win-win partnerships, and sustainable development that President Xi has espoused. Projects announced by both the AIIB and NDB have not, for the most part, been particularly unilaterally China-driven. Albeit NGO dissatisfaction with several issues, both banks have published environmental standards, and both have engaged the public and the media. Whether this showboating is hiding more nefarious intentions remains to be seen, but the general trajectory may suggest some tacit optimism may be warranted.

Table 1. Comparison of CDB, EXIM Bank, AIIB, NDB, IBRD and IFC

AIIBnew

 

Dinosaurs in need of a new script

The same cannot be said for the other end of this spectrum in China’s development finance arsenal. Dominated by heavyweight incumbents, the China Development Bank (CDB) and the Export-Import Bank of China (EXIM Bank), both banks exhibit a public character very different from the AIIB and NDB, and suggest a BRI strategy less informed by multilateralism and sustainability. This matters, because the CDB and EXIM Bank accounted for 37.7% and 8.2%, respectively, of estimated outstanding loans or equity investment into BRI countries at year-end 2016. At the same time, this finance is flowing into hard infrastructure that has broad and lasting economic, financial, social, and environmental implications, both positive and negative.

For sustainability, while both the CDB and EXIM Bank have nomenclature for corporate social responsibility, they have almost zero published detailed standards for sustainability, information disclosure, and grievance handling. While China’s Green Credit Guidelines promulgated by the banking regulator applies to these policy banks, it only requires the “bare minimum” (e.g. ensure compliance with local laws and regulations). Moreover, the CDB and EXIM Bank are the largest funders of carbon-intensive infrastructure globally. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the two banks combined for the largest proportion (approximately 34%) of international public financing from G20 countries into the coal industry since 2013. Research by Boston University also shows that despite both banks being significant funders of the renewable energy sector in China, they strongly support fossil-fuel energy financing into BRI countries. In 2017, BRI countries received 55.9% of total energy financing from the two banks, and of that financing, 34.2% was made into the coal sector, with no investment at all into solar or wind since 2015.

On multilateralism, it is also unclear. The mandate to implement China’s ambitious industrial policies such as “international capacity cooperation”, which aims to promote Chinese “advanced industrial technologies” to international markets, falls squarely on the shoulders of the EXIM Bank. And with technologies such as high-efficiency ultra-supercritical coal power plants formally included in the high-profile “Made in China 2025” strategy as key advanced technologies that ensure China’s industrial competitiveness, it is hard to see how the policy bank would deviate from its set course.

A generation gap

Granted, the CDB and EXIM Bank were borne out of a context vastly different from today’s China. Unlike the AIIB and NDB, which were launched under President Xi’s watch, and are connected to his global vision, the CDB and EXIM Bank were both founded in 1994, when the country’s leadership was then staying true to Deng Xiaoping’s maxim for China to maintain a low foreign profile and to focus on domestic development. Both the CDB and EXIM Bank’s mandates flowed from this focus, with a majority of their funding flowing to domestic heavy industry that would support China’s development. For the CDB, it was central towards spurring domestic investments in infrastructure through local government financing vehicles (LGFV) which used land as collateral. For the EXIM Bank, it supported China’s “going abroad” strategy, providing financing for overseas deals, often at concessional rates that would favor Chinese companies and suppliers. It bears worth mentioning that these practices favoring domestic industry is characteristic behavior of other rising developing nations in the past, from the US in the 1900s, to Japan in the 1970s, through to the East Asian “tigers” of the 80s and 90s. China and its financing institutions are following a familiar pattern.

Nonetheless, the contrast in policy and practice between China’s newly created multilateral banks and its domestic policy banks is jarring. With a set of completely different mandates and priorities, China’s policy banks are more insular than their more internationally-oriented  siblings and are more committed to domestic policy goals than they are to international environmental goals such as the Paris Climate Agreement. Thus, it remains to be seen which version of a BRI finance strategy will characterize overseas development finance flows.

Will the real BRI please stand up?

The larger picture that emerges is one of competing visions in China’s overseas finance space, to say nothing of other important BRI-associated organizations, such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), or the Sino-Russia and wider central Asia cooperation via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Perhaps this divide between China’s overseas finance players is indicative of an emerging trend that the BRI concept has become inflated, and increasingly means many different things to different organizations, with various implementing bodies, themes, and programs.

As a result, despite the fanfare and excitement that the launch of the AIIB and NDB elicited, and despite their efforts to espouse multilateralism and sustainability, China’s new batch of BRI-associated institutions have so far not been able to set the tone for the whole Belt and Road Initiative. This has frustrated many early proponents of the initiative, most notably European governments, who have visibly backed away from explicitly endorsing the projects over objections of China’s lack of trade reciprocity, and given further legitimacy to the concerns of the South Asian giant, India, which has refused to support the initiative. Given the ratcheting suspicions over China’s foreign policy, the time is now is for China’s top leadership to reassert President Xi’s commitment to sustainability and multilateralism through action. Pushing China’s policy banks to meaningfully engage the world would be a good start.

Calvin Quek is the head of Greenpeace East Asia’s sustainable finance program; Lauren Huleatt is a staff member of the same program.

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