Zooming In, Zooming Out: the frames through which Western media see Belt and Road

An awareness of the narrative frames used by Western media to portray BRI can lead to better reporting

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Chinese commentators are starting to take note of international negative coverage of the BRI since the beginning of 2018. (Screenshot from FTChinese.com)

In April this year the China-Africa scholar Deborah Brautigam published an article in the Washington Post which essentially fact checked and myth-busted Western media reporting on China’s role in Africa. It included the debunking of such commonly held assumptions as Chinese companies’ investments and projects not providing jobs or skills to local communities, Chinese banks’ loans as predatory and burdensome, and China as a land-grabbing power, a notion whose implications of colonialism by stealth Brautigam debunks as straight up fake news.

Panda Paw Dragon Claw‘s inaugural article took a look at how some of China’s more independent media outlets — Caixin and Caijing — are interpreting and writing about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and China’s growing involvement abroad. Not surprisingly, that deep dive found certain firmly-rooted perspectives, biases and blind spots in the outlets’ reporting of China abroad, all of which are contributing to shaping the dominant narrative of China’s engagement overseas in the eyes of their audiences.

Western media outlets are no different. Approaching the topic with their own world views and their own needs to satisfy the desires of their readers (customers), Western media are also engaged in the construction of narratives around what Jonathan Hillman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies has called “the best known, least understood foreign policy effort” of the 21st century. And as Professor Brautigam pointed out, some of Western media’s blind spots and assumptions can lead to pure factual inaccuracy — anathema to any journalist worth their salt.

More often, however, these perspectives present the Belt and Road through a certain framing, which is neither correct nor incorrect, but does have significant bearing on how the often mysterious initiative is understood in the eyes of readers.

As the construction of something approaching a common, global understanding of Belt and Road is underway, it is worth reflecting, analysing and, where appropriate, critiquing these frames. While some framing of stories is inevitable in order to make sense of the enormous, nebulous and often opaque initiative, an awareness of these frames, their strengths and their blind spots can lead to better coverage and a more complex understanding of China’s overseas involvement. This in turn, we hope, could lead to increased and more effective engagement with the initiative from those who stand to gain or lose the most – local communities and their civil society partners.

So what are the major frames through which major Western media outlets are looking at the Belt and Road? Below are three major framings identified from a read through of BRI coverage from Reuters, the New York Times, The Guardian, Bloomberg and the Economist. This analysis is not exhaustive, but has attempted to be broad in its sources and aims to be a starting point for broader discussion.

Great Power Rivalry

In response to China’s increasing global clout, Western governments’ perspectives have included the hawkish and the more softly, softly approach. While one perspective sought to absorb China into the global order as a new “responsible global player”, another, knee-jerk, reaction has been to label China a neo-imperialist and expansionist power. Hillary Clinton has even used the phrase “neo-colonialism” in response to China’s increasing presence in Africa.

Media have not been immune from the influence of aspects of the latter of these perspectives. One of the major lenses through which Western media covers Belt and Road is that of geopolitical rivalry. BRI is commonly explained as in direct competition to the post-WWII order, and much coverage of BRI in Asia and Africa has directly pitted US influence against Chinese influence, a binary in which, like a weighing scale, more on one side necessarily equals less on the other.

This framing is evident, for example, in the New York Times warm up piece to the first Belt and Road Summit in Beijing in May 2017. The authors of the article attempt to define the Belt and Road — no easy task — and focus on its direct challenge to the West, one which, in their view, comes right from the top, President Xi Jinping himself. “Mr. Xi is aiming to use China’s wealth and industrial know-how to create a new kind of globalization that will dispense with the rules of the aging Western-dominated institutions,” the authors write. The article also directly compares BRI to the US’s post-WWII Marshall Plan, which served the dual functions of post-war reconstruction and the fundamental reshaping the global economic and political order in the US’s interest.

The New York Times also assert that, with infrastructure projects the key component of the geopolitical strategy, even unprofitable and risky projects are, at the end of the day, worth investing in as, for Beijing, politically strategic gains trump concerns over profitability. The case of the US$ 6 billion trans-south east Asia railway project beginning its construction in Laos is cited as an example. According to the New York Times’ interpretation, despite major concerns in regards to Laos’s ability to afford their share of the price tag and a feasibility study that estimated the rail line will remain loss-making for at least 11 years, Beijing is nonetheless willing to push ahead with the project as Laos is a central part of China’s plan “to chip away at American influence in south east Asia.”

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The Economist pits BRI against the Marshall Plan, March 2018. (Screenshot from The Economist)

The Economist adopted a similar BRI versus post-WWII global order framing in the March 2018 article titled ‘Will China’s Belt and Road Initiative outdo the Marshall Plan’. While similar geopolitical concerns have been raised by numerous media in regards to China’s port investments in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, whose purported solely civilian usage has met with scepticism.

While there is nothing explicitly wrong about viewing BRI through this geopolitical rivalry lens, it can be limiting. It often underplays or disregards the role of ‘recipient’ countries and tends to overlook the multiplicity of roles from China’s side, wrapping the actions and incentives of ministries, banks, state owned enterprises and other players under the broad banner of “China”, or even going one step further and portraying it all under the name of Xi Jinping. This can lead to a broad brush approach to the multiplicity of incentives and intentions, which often lurk deeply shrouded in opaqueness.

One major exception to this is the New York Times’ recent investigation into the handing over of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port to China on a 99 year lease. The article broadly takes the geopolitical framing as its reference, but digs deep into the multiple players and stakeholders involved to show a far more complex face of a BRI project than is commonly seen in the media.

The geopolitical frame can also elevate politics above other driving factors of BRI, such as Chinese companies’ rush to find new markets as they face overcapacity at home and the threat of a domestic economy slowly but surely transitioning away from the heavy industries of the 8+% growth era of previous decades.

Most likely almost all BRI projects see an overlapping of all these elements – macro-level geopolitical moves, local level political agency, the push force of China’s economic transition, and more. How to account for and tell a story which can encompass all these elements is a question journalists and researchers may want to ask. No one frame is necessarily more correct than the other, but one frame more often that not leads to the telling of only one part of the story’s whole.

International Development… with Chinese characteristics

Whereas the above lens generates much suspicion, when Western media look at the development impacts of China’s investments, a more ambivalent tone is to be found. There are two main reasons for this. One is that, once key projects take off, they often do have radical and tangible impacts in those recipient countries. Secondly, if part of what China is doing with Belt and Road is spreading its theory and practice of development to other parts of the world, given China’s impressive track record on development, this can hardly be dismissed outright.

As James Milward, a historian at Georgetown University, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece in May this year, “China’s economic progress over the past century has been phenomenal, lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. So when the Chinese government offers to share its experience in development … it should be taken seriously.” And few could dispute this.

Milward goes on to cite concerns in the current trend of this sharing of development experience – the debt burden on Sri Lanka which culminated in Sri Lanka’s leasing of the deep water Hambantota port to China for 99 years, for example. But other scholars take a very different view. Professor Brautigam, mentioned at the start of this article, for one, takes a more optimistic, or at least open, view of the benefits Chinese investment can leave behind in recipient countries. In her Washington Post opinion piece, for example, she writes: “Chinese loans are powering Africa, and Chinese firms are creating jobs… China may boost Africa’s economic transformation, or they may get it wrong — just as American development efforts often go awry.” The benefits should not be overlooked, and the jury should remain out.

When focusing on the development frame, news reports have also noted the benefits Chinese investment has and can bring. Bloomberg, for example, put together a list of the projects that will have the most direct positive economic impacts, including the Gwadar port in Pakistan, the  Kyaukpyu to Kunming oil pipeline, running from Myanmar to China’s most south westerly province, Pakistan’s Thar coal mines, and the very same south east Asia rail link the New York Times called out as representative of the geopolitical gaming of Belt and Road.

While many (including myself) would not necessarily view the above list and its strong fossil fuel representation so positively,the point Bloomberg makes about the projects’ large and tangible impact, especially on economic indicators such as GDP, cannot be denied.

Big picture and local voices

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Protest against Lamu coal power plant, Kenya, November 2015. Photo: Maarufu Mohamed/Standard via Sourcewatch

While many outlets have published articles attempting to encompass and report the entire Belt and Road – grand, macro picture sweeps such as the Guardian‘s ‘The $900 billion question‘ and Bloomberg‘s ‘China’s Silk Road’, for example – Western media’s reporting strength on the BRI has often been in local level case studies. These stories aim to act as miniatures of the larger Belt and Road story. Taking a leaf from the journalism 101 book, they tend to focus on points of conflict and disagreement, and in doing so are key mediums for amplifying the often underheard voices and concerns of local communities.

Reuters‘ 2017 in depth report on local opposition to the Petrochina-operated crude oil pipeline in Myanmar is a case in point. It leads into the story from the perspective of one of hundreds of local fishermen who have been ordered to cease all fishing activities and goes on to focus on the lack of consultation with local communities.

“Chinese companies said they would develop our village and improve our livelihoods, but it turned out we are suffering every day,” said Nyein Aye, the local fisherman interviewed by Reuters.

From another continent, the New York Times‘ report on the controversial Lamu coal plant on Kenya’s coast performs a similar function of amplifying and contextualising a variety of local voices, including the ambivalence of one young man: “If it comes with a job I’m ready to take it”. Local opinions can come in all shapes and forms, and international media is one powerful channel through which those different opinions can be expressed to the world.

These articles’ focus on human stories and the conflicts and tensions between big business interest and local communities in some senses help to fill a gap too often seen in China’s domestic coverage — that of on-the-ground coverage from grass roots perspectives, as noted in this blog’s opening article.

Disconnect

Perhaps what is most striking from all the above, however, is the apparent lack of connection and dialogue between Western media perspectives and Chinese. Bloomberg and Caixin’s reporting on the same project in Sri Lanka is a case in point. In their article, Bloomberg elevate local voices, opening the piece with an anecdote about a local farmer and his family drying rice on a newly built road, financed with Chinese money. Caixin on the other hand, puts its spotlight on local engineers and contractors who are benefiting from more business opportunities, treating local fishing community voices as footnotes and, as this blog previously pointed out, “like fire hoops for Chinese actors to jump through.”

It’s as if the two operate in separate bubbles, when in fact they could and should be in dialogue, both complementing and critiquing each other’s coverage.

This article’s overview and critique of some of the key narrative framings Western media are using in their coverage of the Belt and Road Initiative is intended to trigger awareness of and reflection on these framings. Some may see more framings out there, or see the above as overly simplified. My hope, however, is that through an awareness of the presence of these narrative framings readers, journalists and researchers will take note and see the gaps and blind spots that may exist in current reporting on BRI, with the ultimate purpose to improve, diversify and strengthen media coverage of what is surely one of the most important and rapidly unfolding stories across the world right now.

Tom Baxter works in communications and on the environmental impacts of Belt and Road projects at Greenpeace East Asia. You can find him on Twitter via @TomBaxter17

 

China’s climate foreign aid after ministerial re-shuffle

How well can China run its climate foreign aid program outside the UN framework

by Wang Binbin

Editor’s note: Among the numerous types of foreign aid that China gives to other countries, climate aid is one that is still relatively new. First started in 2007, as a way to diffuse increasing international pressure on China for its ballooning carbon emissions, the program has, over the past decade, expanded both in terms of its coverage (from small island states most affected by climate change to a wide range of developing countries across the globe) and its size (from about 10 million USD a year to 300 million based on one UNDP estimation). Just like the AIIB, China’s south-south climate assistance program represents another attempt at reshaping an important aspect of global governance with “Chinese wisdom”. For instance, Chinese climate aid runs outside the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) regime, which differentiates obligations of developed and developing countries. Under that system, developed countries put money into the Green Climate Fund (GCF) to help developing countries combat climate change. China’s long-standing sensitivity around being recognized as a developing country, combined with its urge to show leadership on a key global issue, has prompted it to come up with its own version of climate aid that is not without institutional challenges. Wang Binbin’s new blog is an update of the latest development under this program, after the recent creation of a “China AID”, in the fashion of USAID and UK’s DFID.

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Xie Zhenhua, China’s special envoy on climate change, demonstrates cookstoves in Myanmar (Source: Global Environmental Institute

One of the most closely-watched changes to come out of China’s recent ministerial shake-up was the creation in mid-April of the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA), equivalent to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) or the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) – agencies responsible for administering foreign aid and development assistance.

Although this sub-ministerial body does not have an official website yet, it got off to a quick start, announcing on May 16 that China would send emergency humanitarian aid to Kenya in response to severe flooding.

Despite its still undefined make-up and responsibilities, observers are already speculating about how the creation of CIDCA will affect China’s overseas aid, the Belt and Road Initiative, and wider South-South cooperation, including China’s climate change foreign aid to other developing countries.

Climate aid with “Chinese characteristics” 

China’s South-South climate cooperation has focused on providing aid to less developed nations commensurate with its position as the world’s largest developing country. The country’s overseas aid has had a climate change component for more than a decade and this has expanded over the years.

In 2012 the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) announced that funding would be doubled for climate change aid to about US$72 million a year. Subsequently, a project to donate materials to help countries respond to climate change got underway, headed by the NDRC’s Department of Climate Change and funded by the Ministry of Finance. Notably, this included the donation of a meteorological satellite to Ethiopia.

In September 2015, before the Paris climate conference, China stepped up its commitment when Xi Jinping announced a 20 billion yuan (US$3.1 billion) South-South Climate Cooperation Fund. Two months later, in Paris, the government clarified its scope: from 2016 China would fund 10 low-carbon demonstration projects, 100 climate change adaptation and mitigation projects, and 1,000 training places in developing nations (the “10-100-1000” plan).

More recently, the 19th Communist Party of China National Congress work report stressed that China would cooperate internationally on climate change to contribute to and lead in the construction of an international “ecological civilization”.

When it comes to international climate governance, China views developed nations as having a responsibility to developing countries, owing to their historical emissions of greenhouse gases. In contrast, China is assisting developing nations out of a sense of climate justice rather than obligation. This has shaped China’s climate aid program, which is “voluntary” and “supplementary”, and stands separate from that of developed nations, which are channeling climate finance contributions through the Green Climate Fund (GCF), a United Nations mechanism to help developing nations counter climate change.

Following the decision by President Trump to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, China’s actions have been closely watched, as its pledge of 20 billion yuan to the South-South Climate Cooperation Fund was part of the Obama-Xi Joint Statement in 2015 that was made shortly before the Paris talks started. In that statement, the US made an equivalent pledge of US$3 billion to the Green Climate Fund. President Trump has said that the US will not honor the US$2 billion that remains to be paid to the GCF, while China appears committed to carry out its promised plan.

The shoe doesn’t fit

Providing direct material aid and training is relatively straightforward. However, other elements of the “10-100-1000” plan had to be implemented within a framework that was not fit for purpose. The mismatch prevented plans going ahead as scheduled.

The first issue was funding. The NDRC is responsible for macro-level planning and has no overseas remit. The Ministry of Finance’s rules require that the NDRC’s South-South climate cooperation spending and procurement take place inside China. The “10-100-1000” plan, therefore, had to be designed to fit that requirement, with the 100 mitigation and adaptation projects limited to material donations – and to those goods that could be purchased in China. This affected both the quality and pace of project delivery.

Similarly, the 10 low-carbon demonstration projects were originally intended to happen in industrial zones or residential neighborhoods in recipient countries, promoting general low-carbon development practices (in planning, management and infrastructure construction). But again, the requirement for procurement in China hindered progress.

Then there were personnel issues. As the only option was to buy goods at home, the NDRC’s Department of Climate Change needed to quickly develop new competences to ensure quality procurement: tendering processes, technical workflows, product standards, financial reporting, working across languages, negotiating, and assessing the needs of different nations. This was clearly too much to expect from a department previously responsible for climate change policy.

The final issue was communication. The domestic role of the NDRC means it has no direct links with other countries and so no way to directly communicate with recipient nations.

While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs traditionally handles overseas relationships, China’s expanding links with the rest of the world mean that the Ministry’s embassies abroad were already stretched. Although willing to help implement the plan, they lacked sufficient capacity to do so.

Faced with these constraints, those in charge had to come up with alternative approaches. For example, in August 2016 the NDRC’s Department of Climate Change toured south-east Asia, with the help of Oxfam, an international NGO, to assess the needs of developing countries. This helped to refine the “10-100-1000” plan and work around the department’s lack of international links.

The Department of Climate Change and the UN Development Program then held a “matchmaking” meeting to connect the needs of developing nations with types of support that China could provide.

In March 2017, China donated clean cooking stoves and domestic solar power systems to Myanmar, with project delivery entrusted to the Global Environment Institute, a Chinese NGO. These moves were all unprecedented.

Opportunities post-reshuffle

The reorganization of China’s cabinet ministries, announced at China’s Lianghui (Twin Sessions) in March of this year, brought seismic changes for climate and environmental governance, with responsibility for climate change reassigned from NDRC to the new Ministry for Ecology and Environment (MEE), which was formally established on April 16. Two days later, CIDCA was created, taking overseas aid responsibilities from the commerce, foreign affairs and finance ministries.

Future South-South climate cooperation is likely to take place within a joint MEE-CIDCA framework. This will help to resolve issues with funding, personnel and international links.

CIDCA is run by former NDRC vice minister Wang Xiaotao (pictured). On April 23, Zhou Liujun, former head of the Ministry of Commerce’s Department of Outward Investment and Economic Cooperation, and Deng Boqing, former ambassador to countries including Nigeria, were appointed as vice-directors. The structuring of the two new bodies should be completed by the end of June.

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The fact that the top three officials for CIDCA have been drawn from China’s powerful macro-economic planning department, its commerce department, and its foreign affairs apparatus bode well for its ability to coordinate with these ministries.

We can expect that arrangements for the “10-100-1000” plan will be improved once governance structures are clearer. While the changes should not have much impact on the more straightforward training program, the 100 adaptation and mitigation projects will be able to deploy a more flexible approach to aid that is not restricted only to material donations procured domestically.

CIDCA will benefit from established overseas aid systems moved over from the Ministry of Commerce (including material aid, turn-key project delivery, technical cooperation and training). This will mean MEE can more easily make use of CIDCA capabilities when designing South-South climate cooperation projects. Researchers also predict that development attachés may be stationed in Chinese embassies to manage China’s overseas aid. This would solve the lack of international links.

Most eagerly anticipated are the 10 low-carbon demonstration projects. Although initial work on these projects was hampered, a lot of planning has been done and resources are in place.

The new framework will allow MEE and CIDCA to work together to better combine aid, investment and trade. And the model of government-set standards to guide private investment and create green investment is regarded by some experienced figures as the ideal model for those demonstration projects.

Three relationships

It is worth noting that China’s arrangements for South-South climate cooperation were not originally limited to the “10-100-1000” plan.

In 2014, China donated US$6 million to support the UN secretariat’s promotion of South-South climate cooperation. In April that year the funding was used as seed capital for a Southern Climate Partnership Incubator (SCPI) announced by Ban Ki-moon. The SCPI is designed to foster partnerships (both bilateral and multilateral) to allow less developed countries to engage in policy exchange, capacity building, and to have access to technologies and knowledge that facilitate climate action.

Combined with the “10-100-1000” plan, China’s use of UN platforms represents a combination of domestic and international approaches to climate change cooperation.

Pushing China’s South-South climate initiative at the UN level has several advantages: it is intrinsically more multilateral, it is not limited by China’s own rigid bureaucratic and financial restrictions, and it takes advantage of the UN’s global reach.

The ministerial shake-up makes efficient implementation of the “10-100-1000” plan possible. Meanwhile, China’s support for South-South climate cooperation under the UN system is growing and starting to attract civil society forces. For example, the Qiaonyu Foundation donated 100 million yuan (US$15.6 million) for South-South climate cooperation, with US$1.5 million going towards running the SCPI.

In January this year the foundation signed an agreement with the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation launching the Qiao plan, which will use the UN to identify potential recipients of funding.

South-South climate cooperation can be expected to take place between the Chinese government and the UN, across Chinese government departments, and between the government and civil society.

If those three relationships promote and strengthen each other, resulting in projects that meet recipient nation needs while furthering mitigation, adaptation, poverty-relief and environmental protection, then South-South climate cooperation will be successful.

 

Wang Binbin is a research fellow at Peking University’s International Organizations Research Institute. Parts of this article, first published on chinadialogue, are taken from the her new book, From Zero to Hero: China’s Transition on Climate Communication and Governance, published April 2018 by the Social Sciences Academic Press.

“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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Why “Panda Paw Dragon Claw”?

China’s increasing visibility and influence on the global stage have induced a mixed response.

Many in the field of studying Chinese involvement overseas have invoked the image of the dragon. Professor Deborah Brautigam, an authoritative scholar on China’s aid programs in Africa, named her groundbreaking book about that subject “the Dragon’s Gift”. Professor Kevin Gallagher, a Boston University expert on China-Latin America economic relations, titled one chapter in his book “the Dragon’s footprint”.

Fully aware that the dragon metaphor might be clichéd and stereotypical, we believe that it nevertheless captures the menacing posture that many associate with China. Its ambitious global program to boost infrastructure building, to finance development projects and to expand the reach of its industries overseas at times seem like the muscular claw of the dragon trying to snatch its preys, be it energy or mineral resources.

But we should not forget China’s other global image, which is more cuddly and warm, as represented by the giant panda. Like the affection those chubby animals invoke in zoos across of the globe, many Chinese projects and initiatives overseas are actually welcomed and embraced. These include its longstanding medical aid program to Africa since 1960s, and more recently, its South to South climate aid.

The overused and value-neutral concept of “footprint” is inadequate in its imagery force to truly reflect the complexity of China’s involvement beyond its own borders. Here we take the liberty of juxtaposing the two polarized images, panda paw and dragon claw, and leave it to our readers to decide which one they see. We hope the site can work like a hologram.

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We hope the site can work like a hologram.

We are also acutely aware of the fact that stories about China’s overseas adventures are often told from the standpoints of elites, in and outside the country. While documenting and analyzing the decisions and activities of politicians, financial institutions and business leaders are important, telling the story from the “civilian perspective”(民间视角) is also crucial to complete that story. To us, the words from a Sri Lankan fisherman are no less relevant than those of a European finance minister.

This blog is started by those who aspire to tell a better story about China’s involvement beyond its borders. We are journalists, campaigners, analysts, scholars and practitioners with years of experience navigating Chinese politics, bureaucracy, finance and their ramifications overseas. We hope that it will serve as a convening place for the community of China “storytellers” to share, discuss and debate about China’s impact globally, with a particular focus on developments in the energy and environmental fields.