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.

tillerson-a-20180308-870x580
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.

ppdc charts.png

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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