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India and China compete over Indian Ocean debt-relief diplomacy

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Sri Lanka’s navy scours the island nation’s northern waters in search of Indian smugglers hauling boatloads of turmeric, a staple spice used widely in South Asian cooking. The ultranationalist government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa this year added the yellow seasoning to a list of banned imports in a desperate effort to prevent an outflow of precious US dollars.

Meanwhile, the Maldives, to the south-west of Sri Lanka, has imposed limits on the use of dollars by locals to settle their monthly debit and credit card bills. The Bank of Maldives, the largest commercial bank in the region’s smallest country, in September set a monthly limit of $250 for each card, widely used by small businesses in the archipelago to pay for imports.

The commodity and currency crackdowns by the two Indian Ocean countries have a common thread spotlighting their shared need to shore up fast-depleting foreign — overwhelmingly dollar — reserves. The cash crunch is forcing both governments to seek financial lifelines to settle mounting international debts.

That vulnerability is providing a fresh opportunity for China and India to deepen their influence in the nations as they engage in a growing contest to gain the upper hand in the strategic Indian Ocean. Though part of ongoing broader economic, financial and geopolitical ambitions on display by the world’s two most populous countries, it marks a new stage of engagement in a region where they have already been competing in infrastructure financing for years.

Officials in Sri Lanka and the Maldives are quick to acknowledge how beholden they are to the Asian giants as they struggle to stay solvent in a growing sea of red ink, problems plaguing other indebted countries in the region from Pakistan to Cambodia.

Sri Lanka and Maldives debt

“India has offered a swap arrangement,” Nivard Cabraal, Sri Lanka’s minister overseeing money, capital markets and state enterprise, told Nikkei Asia. “We have been in touch with the Chinese Development Bank as part of the options available to Sri Lanka to have inflows coming on a bilateral basis.” The country’s dependency on New Delhi and Beijing has increased after the one-year-old Rajapaksa government eschewed seeking a bailout from the IMF.

According to Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives, the government of President Ibrahim Solih is in talks with China for a reprieve from the multimillion-dollar debt owed to Beijing. “It is still being negotiated, but not yet settled,” Mr Nasheed, currently the Speaker of parliament, told Nikkei. The government hopes “the Chinese will delay the repayments by a few years at least”, he said.

India’s debt-relief offer differs from China’s approach. In Sri Lanka, New Delhi provided a $400m currency swap facility this year through the Reserve Bank of India, its central bank, helping to boost the island’s reserves.

It has kept the Rajapaksa government guessing, however, on its other requests — a further $1bn currency swap and a $1bn debt moratorium on loans Sri Lanka owes India. Diplomatic sources in the Sri Lankan capital say that India has an opportunity to leverage the current moment as Sri Lanka’s economy nears default.

A construction worker is seen at a construction site near a China-funded bridge in Male, the capital of the Maldives, in September 2018 © Reuters

China, which styles itself as an “all-weather friend” to Sri Lanka, has pumped in $500m this year out of a $1.2bn syndicated loan it has pledged through the China Development Bank. Sri Lankan authorities have reportedly approached Beijing for a further $1.5bn currency swap. Not surprisingly, Chinese diplomats in Colombo welcome being the lender of last resort.

“The $700m facility agreement is to be finalised between China Development Bank and the finance ministry of Sri Lanka,” Luo Chong, the Chinese embassy’s spokesperson, told Nikkei, referring to the remainder of the $1.2bn loan. “So, we are positive about the process.”

In the Maldives, conversely, it is India that has been more generous after Mr Solih’s pro-Indian Maldivian Democratic Party defeated former President Abdullah Yameen, who was openly pro-China and anti-India, in a shock election outcome in 2018. New Delhi has steadily injected an estimated more than $2bn through loans, grants, credit lines and currency swaps.

“India has adopted a package approach in which it works on the demand basis of South Asian countries while assisting them in short projects,” said Pankaj Kumar Jha, professor of defence and strategic studies at New Delhi-based Jindal Global University. “At the same time, [it is] providing grants and aid which can be restructured through deferred payments and the repayment terms have built confidence.”

Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, left, and Modi smile after delivering a joint press statement in New Delhi in December 2018 © Getty

Despite India’s munificence, China still holds the influential hand. The Maldives had to swallow a bitter pill served up by a World Bank report in mid-2020 that ranked it among nine countries facing “debt distress” because of Chinese loans that exceed 30 per cent of its national obligation — in the Maldives, it is 45 per cent. Consequently, China agreed to slash $25m from the $100m in official debt the Maldives had to settle with it this year. It was a special arrangement under the Group of 20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative, or DSSI, to postpone debt servicing on bilateral loans.

The groundbreaking offer was greeted with relief in the capital, Male. “We have received the DSSI for our direct debt obligations from the official bilateral creditors,” a senior official from the president’s office told Nikkei. “The government of the Maldives has strongly advocated for this to be extended until the end of 2021.”

China's share of external debt stocks in seven Asia countries in 2019

Recent downgrades by global rating agencies have compounded the debt crisis for the Maldives and Sri Lanka, leaving little room for them to seek alternative financing in international markets.

In November, Fitch Ratings downgraded the Maldives to a “CCC” rating from the previous “B” rating due to the coronavirus pandemic. It forecast the tourism-dependent economy to contract by 30 per cent and government debt to jump to 110.7 per cent of gross domestic product in 2020.

Two months earlier, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded its rating on Sri Lanka two notches from “B2” to “Caa1” — junk status — saying the pandemic’s economic shock exposed the country to financial risks. “We expect Sri Lanka’s debt burden to increase to 100 per cent of GDP over 2020-21, above the Caa-rated median of 88 per cent,” Moody’s said last month.

Fitch immediately followed Moody’s with further bad news, downgrading Sri Lanka’s rating to “CCC” from “B-” after the government presented its 2021 budget to the parliament in November. The “risks to the sovereign’s ability to meet its external-debt servicing obligations have increased”, Fitch said.

Xi, left, waves while standing next to Sri Lanka’s then President Mahinda Rajapaksa during an official welcoming ceremony at Bandaranaike International Airport in Katunayake, Sri Lanka in September 2014 © AFP via Getty Images

Seasoned analysts are not surprised by the severe measures — such as the imported turmeric ban — that Sri Lanka has imposed to preserve its dwindling dollars. This policy shift is “to tackle a macroeconomic issue of a worsening balance of payments deficit due to [a] fall in foreign receipts from exports, foreign direct investment and tourism”, said Ganeshan Wignaraja, senior research associate at the London-based Overseas Development Institute. It was also to deal with a “longer-term structural issue of inadequate domestic production in agriculture and manufacturing which has led to high import dependence,” he added.

The debt picture for Sri Lanka’s $88bn economy confirms an appetite for living on borrowed money. It had $50.8bn in loans by the end of June, the largest slice from international markets that cannot be renegotiated. Bilateral lenders such as China account for 10 per cent of the debt, mostly for large infrastructure projects, followed by Japan, previously Sri Lanka’s largest lender.

This year, Sri Lanka had to settle $4.2bn in foreign debt, which included paying off a $1bn sovereign bond in October. Interest payments to service loans were $1.4bn and a further $1.8bn in loans to multilateral and bilateral lenders were settled, according to the finance ministry. From 2021 until 2024, Sri Lanka faces annual foreign debt payments averaging $4bn, with next year’s principal at $2.6bn and estimated interest at $1.4bn.

Port City Colombo is seen under construction in Colombo, © Getty

The turn to India and China coincided with Sri Lanka’s diminishing foreign reserves, which have slumped to a three-year low of $5.8bn after the October’s sovereign bond was settled.

“We have a situation where we have high annual foreign debt repayments over the next several years,” said Trisha Peries, head of economic research at Frontier Research, a Colombo-based think-tank. “If the government doesn’t approach the IMF for funding, Sri Lanka would have to rely more on bilateral lenders who would be able and willing to provide continuous support over the next few years and not just in the short term.”

The foreign debt picture in the $5bn economy of the Maldives is more opaque and characterised by public spats over how much the country owes China. The outspoken Mr Nasheed told Nikkei that the amount was more than $3bn. “My figure is from the parliament finance committee; we work from first principals as well,” he said. The Chinese government disagrees, saying it is closer to $1.45bn.

This article is from Nikkei Asia, a global publication with a uniquely Asian perspective on politics, the economy, business and international affairs. Our own correspondents and outside commentators from around the world share their views on Asia, while our Asia300 section provides in-depth coverage of 300 of the biggest and fastest-growing listed companies from 11 economies outside Japan.

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Experts in the Maldives say the country should consider the financial lifelines to stave off default as a measure of political benevolence. At a time of great difficulty in the Maldives, a willingness on the part of the Chinese government to intervene was “a big help not to the government of the Maldives, but to the people”, said Fazeel Najeeb, former governor of the Maldives Monetary Authority, the central bank. “An agreement to negotiate [outstanding loans] is always a matter of goodwill.”

The Maldives’ depleted international reserves of $649m are due to be tapped to meet multiple foreign debt servicing commitments from the fourth quarter of this year through 2022. One loan of $142m has to be settled next year, and a foreign bond of $250m matures in June 2022.

But for both the Maldives and Sri Lanka, there are warning signs over just how far China, with much deeper pockets than India, is willing to go to prevent defaults.

“China has offered debt relief [to cash-strapped countries like Pakistan, Angola and Zambia] that is short-term relief and meant to complement the IMF, not replace it,” said Akhil Bery, South Asia analyst at Eurasia Group. “It was clear that China was not willing to bail out Pakistan, despite their all-weather friendship.”

A version of this article was first published by Nikkei Asia on December 1 2020. ©2020 Nikkei Inc. All rights reserved

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Regulators close ranks on crypto

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Regulators are continuing to step up their scrutiny of cryptocurrencies, with central banks and South Korea’s tax authorities demonstrating fresh concerns.

In a report published on Wednesday, the Bank for International Settlements, the global body for central banks, argues that digital tokens such as bitcoin have few redeeming features and “work against the public good”. It also dismissed stablecoins — a link between crypto and conventional assets — as an “appendage” to traditional money.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the BIS did endorse the development of digital currencies backed by central banks, saying they could be a tool to achieve greater financial inclusion and lower the high costs of payments. “Central bank digital currencies . . . offer in digital form the unique advantages of central bank money: settlement finality, liquidity and integrity,” it said.

In contrast, bitcoin wasted energy and cryptocurrencies were “speculative assets rather than money, and in many cases are used to facilitate money laundering, ransomware attacks and other financial crimes”.

South Korea has acted against the financial crime of tax evasion, with more than Won53bn ($47m) of bitcoin, ethereum and other cryptoassets confiscated from 12,000 people. Officials said it was the largest “cryptocurrency seizure for back taxes in Korean history” and noted that local exchanges had allegedly been used to conceal assets because they did not collect the resident registration numbers of account holders. Many of South Korea’s 60 crypto exchanges are battling to meet regulatory conditions to operate beyond September.

This week’s #techAsia newsletter asks whether the death knell is being sounded for cryptocurrencies. That could be the case in China, where it is scaling up tests of its official digital renminbi, and appears serious about stamping out the crypto industry on its soil. Bitcoin fell below $30,000 on Tuesday following the latest regulatory crackdown, but it has recovered to be worth more than $34,000 today.

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China bolsters ties with Myanmar junta despite international condemnation

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Trade and diplomatic ties between Myanmar and China are normalising in the face of intense domestic opposition and international condemnation of the military junta that seized power in February.

Beijing has strengthened relations with Myanmar’s military leaders despite a series of violent attacks against Chinese business interests in the country after Aung San Suu Kyi’s government was toppled.

Yun Sun, an expert on Myanmar-China relations with the Stimson Center, a US think-tank, said Beijing had already made a “fundamental assessment” that Myanmar was moving into another prolonged period of military rule.

“I think the Chinese can see that this military coup is successful and is here to stay,” she added.

The resumption of state-level engagements and economic activity signals that Myanmar is reverting to its traditional economic reliance on China. The country has used its larger neighbour as a buffer against international sanctions and divestment by foreign investors, who have announced plans to quit the country or shelved projects.

Since the coup, 875 people have been killed by the junta and 6,242 arrested, according to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (Burma), a human rights group. The country’s economy and public services were severely disrupted by mass protests in the three months that followed the putsch, and have only partially recovered.

The resumption of bilateral trade will fuel the widespread suspicion among anti-coup resistance groups that China was prepared to support the new military regime.

The cumulative value of China’s imports from Myanmar for the first five months of the year was $3.38bn, up from $2.43bn in 2020 and $2.56bn in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic, according to official Chinese customs data.

Exports to Myanmar for the same period have not recovered to the same extent, however. By the end of May, goods valued at $4.28bn had been shipped to Myanmar, compared with $4.56bn and $4.79bn in the two previous years.

In a further sign of strengthening diplomatic relations, Chen Hai, China’s ambassador to Myanmar, met coup leader and military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw, the capital, in June. In a subsequent statement, Chen referred to Min Aung Hlaing as the leader of Myanmar.

China was among the countries that abstained in a UN general assembly vote last week calling on the international community to halt the flow of arms to Myanmar and release Aung San Suu Kyi and other political detainees. 

Beijing had good relations with the government of the deposed leader, who is in detention facing multiple criminal charges. However, it has refrained from criticising the military, fanning anger among the mass protest movement that sprang up after the coup. 

Beyond being Myanmar’s biggest trading partner, China also has strategic infrastructure investments in the country, including energy pipelines that give Beijing a critical link to the Indian Ocean.

James Char, a Myanmar expert at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said many people in Myanmar still blamed the Chinese government and business interests for complicity in supporting the military’s decades of rule before the transition to democracy.

“The Chinese, themselves, are very clear about [public sentiment in Myanmar],” Char said.

Attacks on China-linked businesses in the wake of the coup culminated in an explosion at a Chinese-backed textile factory west of Yangon on June 11, according to reports from local Myanmar media, as well as junta-controlled information services and Chinese state media.

Beijing’s wariness of inflaming Myanmar protesters would probably slow Chinese direct investments and the resumption of planned larger-scale developments that formed part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, analysts said.

Additional reporting by Sherry Fei Ju in Beijing



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Australia calls Great Barrier Reef warning politically motivated

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Australia has labelled a draft decision by the UN’s World Heritage Committee to include the Great Barrier Reef on its “in danger” list as politically motivated.

The committee, which is chaired by Tian Xuejun, China’s vice-minister for education, and selects Unesco World Heritage sites, proposed adding the world’s largest collection of coral reefs to the danger list because of the damaging impact of climate change and coastal development.

The designation could ultimately lead to the reef losing its World Heritage status, although officials said listing was intended to prompt emergency action to safeguard a living structure that stretches 2,300km along Australia’s eastern coast.

But Sussan Ley, Australia’s environment minister, said the government had been “blindsided” by the committee’s finding and alleged there was a lack of consultation and transparency. She added that Canberra would challenge the draft decision.

“When procedures are not followed, when the process is turned on its head five minutes before the draft decision is due to be published, when the assurances my officials received and indeed I did have been upended, what else can you conclude but that it is politics?” she said.

That the World Heritage Committee is chaired by a senior Chinese official has stoked suspicions in Canberra that it had been singled out over its diplomatic and trade clash with Beijing.

China-Australia relations have soured following Canberra’s call last year for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 and Beijing’s imposition of tariffs on Australian wine and barley imports.

Ley said she and Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, had already spoken with Audrey Azoulay, Unesco director-general, to complain about the draft decision.

But scientists downplayed the suggestion that the “in danger” listing was politically motivated. Three mass bleaching events in five years demonstrated the need for the government to do more to tackle climate change, they said.

“I’m seeing some press coverage saying this is all a plot by China not to buy wine, lobsters and to screw the Barrier Reef. I think that’s pretty far-fetched given that the draft decision released overnight will be voted on by 21 countries,” said Terry Hughes, professor of marine biology at James Cook University.

The controversy will heap further international pressure on Canberra, which has been pressed by the US, UK and others to commit to a national target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

In a draft decision due to be voted on next month, the committee urged Canberra to “provide clear commitments to address threats from climate change, in conformity with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, and allow to meet water quality targets faster”.

It noted the loss of almost one-third of shallow-water coral cover following a “bleaching” event in 2016 — a process linked to warmer than normal water that can lead to a mass die-off of coral.

The row over the “in danger” listing occurred at a difficult time for Australia’s conservative coalition, which is embroiled in internal squabbling over climate policies.

On Monday, Barnaby Joyce, a climate sceptic and supporter of coal mining, ousted Michael McCormack to become leader of the National party, the junior coalition partner to the Liberal party, and Australia’s deputy prime minister. Joyce is expected to oppose any move to commit to net zero by 2050.

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