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China pulls back from the world: rethinking Xi’s ‘project of the century’

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It has not taken long for the wheels to come off the Belt and Road Initiative. As recently as May 2017, China’s leader Xi Jinping stood in Beijing before a hall of nearly 30 heads of state and delegates from over 130 countries and proclaimed “a project of the century”.

This was not hyperbole. China has promised to spend about $1tn on building infrastructure in mainly developing countries around the world — and finance almost all of this through its own financial institutions. Adjusted for inflation, this total was roughly seven times what the US spent through the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after the second world war, according to Jonathan Hillman, author of The Emperor’s New Road.

But according to data published this week, reality is deviating sharply from Mr Xi’s script. What was conceived as the world’s biggest development programme is unravelling into what could become China’s first overseas debt crisis. Lending by the Chinese financial institutions that drive the Belt and Road, along with bilateral support to governments, has fallen off a cliff, and Beijing finds itself mired in debt renegotiations with a host of countries.

“This is all part of China’s education as a rising power,” says Mr Hillman, a senior fellow at Washington-based think-tank CSIS. “It has taken a flawed model that appeared to work at home, building large infrastructure projects, and hubristically tried to apply that abroad.”

Chinese president Xi Jinping, centre, and other leaders at the Belt and Road Forum on Yanqi Lake in 2017. China’s current rethink betrays a tacit recognition that its overseas lending bonanza has been ill-conceived
Chinese president Xi Jinping, centre, and other leaders at the Belt and Road Forum on Yanqi Lake in 2017. China’s current rethink betrays a tacit recognition that its overseas lending bonanza has been ill-conceived © Danir Sagolj/EPA

“Historically, most infrastructure booms have gone bust,” he adds. “Whether China can avert that fate may depend on its ability to renegotiate loans with countries now in urgent need of debt relief. If China is unable or unwilling to provide sufficient relief to its borrowers, it could find itself at the centre of a debt crisis in developing markets.”

The data that describes China’s predicament comes from researchers at Boston University who maintain an independent database on China’s overseas development finance. They found that lending by the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China collapsed from a peak of $75bn in 2016 to just $4bn last year.

The context around this is crucial. The two banks fall under the direct control of China’s state council (cabinet), so they function as arms of the state. They provide the overwhelming majority of China’s overseas development lending and the funds they disburse rival in scale those of the World Bank, the world’s largest multilateral lender.

A construction worker in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Debt renegotiations have proliferated as the pandemic has clobbered emerging economies
A construction worker in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Debt renegotiations have proliferated as the pandemic has clobbered emerging economies © Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Between 2008 and 2019, the two Chinese banks lent $462bn, just short of the $467bn extended by the World Bank, according to the Boston University data. In some years, lending by the Chinese policy banks was almost equivalent to that by all six of the world’s multilateral financial institutions — which along with the World Bank include the Asian Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the African Development Bank — put together.

In global development finance, such a sharp scaling back of lending by the Chinese banks amounts to an earthquake. If it persists, it will exacerbate an infrastructure funding gap that in Asia alone already amounts to $907bn a year, according to Asian Development Bank estimates. In Africa and Latin America — where Chinese credit has also formed a big part of infrastructure financing — the gap between what is required and what is available is also expected to yawn wider.

‘Dual circulation’

China’s retreat from overseas development finance derives from structural policy shifts, according to Chinese analysts. “China is consolidating, absorbing and digesting the investments made in the past,” says Wang Huiyao, an adviser to China’s state council and president of the Center for China and Globalisation, a think-tank.

Luang Prabang railway bridge in Laos Railway, which was built by the China Railway Group. China has promised to spend about $1tn on building infrastructure in mainly developing countries around the world
Luang Prabang railway bridge in Laos Railway, which was built by the China Railway Group. China has promised to spend about $1tn on building infrastructure in mainly developing countries around the world © Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg

Chen Zhiwu, a professor of finance at Hong Kong university, says the retrenchment in Chinese banks’ overseas lending is part of a bigger picture of China cutting back on outbound investments and focusing more resources domestically. It is also a response to tensions between the US and China during the presidency of Donald Trump, when Washington used criticisms of the Belt and Road as a justification to contain China, Prof Chen adds.

“In domestic Chinese media, the frequency of the [Belt and Road] topic occurring has come down a lot in the last few years, partly to downplay China’s overseas expansion ambitions,” says Prof Chen, who is also director of the Asia Global Institute think-tank. “I expect this retrenchment to continue.”

Column chart of Annual loans ($bn) showing China's overseas lending collapses

Yu Jie, senior research fellow on China at Chatham House, a UK think-tank, says Beijing’s recently-adopted “dual circulation” policy represents a step change for China’s relationship with the outside world. The policy, which was first mentioned at a meeting of the politburo in May, places greater emphasis on China’s domestic market — or internal circulation — and less on commerce with the outside world.

“Volatile Sino-US relations and more restrictive access to overseas markets for Chinese companies have prompted a fundamental rethink of growth drivers by Beijing’s top economic planners,” says Ms Yu. “Naturally, if state-owned enterprises decide to switch back to the domestic market in order to follow the leadership’s wishes, the budgeted financial resource for overseas investments will reduce accordingly.”

All this is leading to a fundamental rethink by China towards both the Belt and Road and its overseas lending profile, analysts believe. Mr Wang says that one strand of a new approach would be to pursue more lending through multilateral bodies such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. In addition, Chinese financial institutions may co-operate more with international lending agencies, he adds.

Former oil workers demonstrate in Caracas. Between 2007 and 2013, the China Development Bank lent Venezuela nearly $40bn
Former oil workers demonstrate in Caracas. Between 2007 and 2013, the China Development Bank lent Venezuela nearly $40bn © Crisitian Hernandez/AFP via Getty Images

Such a change would amount to a fundamental reorientation. The Beijing-based AIIB and another multilateral bank in which China is a stakeholder, the New Development Bank, are very different organisations from the two Chinese policy banks. They have lent out a fraction of the policy banks’ annual average and are not directed by Beijing’s policies but by a board of directors who represent the interests of stakeholder countries.

Flaws in the initiative

Overall, though, China’s rethink betrays a tacit recognition that its overseas lending bonanza has been ill-conceived. Photographs from the 2017 Belt and Road Forum for International Co-operation — the venue at which Mr Xi declared his “project of the century” ambition — hint at what would become the programme’s fatal flaw.

Alongside Mr Xi in successive portraits were the authoritarian leaders of countries with big debts and “junk” credit ratings, such as Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, Hun Sen of Cambodia, Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia, Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya and several others.

Debt sustainability — or the ability of debtor countries to repay their loans — had to be part of any reassessment of the Belt and Road Initiative, says Kevin Gallagher, director of the Boston University Global Development Policy Center, which compiled the data on Chinese overseas lending

A security officer observes construction of a motorway near Gwadar, Pakistan, which is being built as part of China's Belt and Road Initiative
A security officer observes construction of a motorway near Gwadar, Pakistan. The South Asian country is a key country in China’s Belt and Road Initiative © Asim Hafeez/Bloomberg

“This has to be the time for a rethink,” he says. “It’s been such a priority for Xi Jinping, he’s invested so much in it that he’s not going to just turn the lights off. But they need to seriously implement their own debt sustainability analysis and their own social and environmental impact tools.”

The propensity for China’s credit-fuelled engagement of diplomatic allies to come unstuck is most spectacularly portrayed by Venezuela. Between 2007 and 2013, the China Development Bank lent Venezuela nearly $40bn, cementing a relationship that Hugo Chávez, the former president of Venezuela, characterised as “a Great Wall” against US hegemonism.

Much of the lending to Venezuela was tied to oil resources, but even before Mr Chávez died in 2013 it was clear that things were going awry. Yet Beijing was in so deep that it felt compelled to keep supporting Nicolás Maduro, successor to Mr Chavez, even after evidence of his ineffectual economic management became clear.

It lent another $20bn between 2013 and 2017 and is now picking through the country’s pile of $150bn in defaulted debt, pushing its claims against rival creditors. The whole episode carries crucial lessons for Beijing, says Matt Ferchen at Merics, a Berlin-based think-tank.

Container ships moored in Mombasa, Kenya. The country's president, Uhuru Kenyatta, was at Xi Jinping's 2017 forum unveiling the Belt and Road Initiative
Container ships moored in Mombasa, Kenya. The country’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, was at Xi Jinping’s 2017 forum unveiling the Belt and Road Initiative © Luis Tato/Bloomberg

“Chinese foreign policy and policy bank officials entered into their outsized economic and political relationship with [Venezuela] with a combination of hubris, ambition and naïveté,” Mr Ferchen wrote. “[This] has contributed to the region’s worst economic, humanitarian, and political crisis in decades.”

Debt renegotiations have proliferated as the pandemic has clobbered emerging economies in Africa and elsewhere. A report by Rhodium Group, a consultancy, says at least 18 processes of debt renegotiation with China have taken place in 2020 and 12 countries were still in talks with Beijing as of the end of September, covering $28bn in Chinese loans.

So far, Beijing appears keen to pursue a soft touch, deferring interest payments and rescheduling loans. But the experience is reinforcing a growing sense of wariness that now infuses Mr Xi’s big project.

China is finding out, says Mr Hillman, that “risk runs both ways along the Belt and Road and the damage can return to 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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The slippery slope of politicised street names

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It is confusing for taxis and Amazon delivery drivers, but in England I live in a Kent village on a street called simply “The Street”. Google Maps disconcertingly emphasises the “The” in big letters.

Surely no street name can be less political than mine. But in a much bigger conurbation, the decision by the mayor of Budapest to impose new street names in the Hungarian capital to highlight China’s human rights abuses is the latest example of the tendentious politicisation of place names around the world. 

There is no doubt about Gergely Karacsony’s purpose. By calling the streets around the site of a proposed Budapest campus of China’s Fudan University “Dalai Lama Road”, “Free Hong Kong Road” and “Uyghur Martyrs Road”, the mayor wants to embarrass Viktor Orban, the authoritarian and pro-China prime minister of Hungary.

He seems to be succeeding. In the face of public protests, Orban is now hesitating to impose the Chinese university project he previously championed to please Communist party leaders in Beijing. You can see why Karacsony did it. He is an opposition politician, and Orban has steadily undermined Hungarian democracy, limiting the scope for other forms of political action. 

But renaming streets for short-term political ends can be the start of a slippery slope. It does nothing to satisfy residents or help visitors find the place they are looking for, which are surely the main reasons for having names at all. And future mayors might change them all back again or impose their own ephemeral political views on the city nomenclature. 

Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, has undergone such a bewildering series of street name conversions since the end of French colonial rule — a reflection of sometimes violent regime changes — that avenues are often known to locals by several different names and visitors struggle to navigate the city.

When I lived in the Zambian capital Lusaka in the 1980s, one avenue was briefly renamed Saddam Hussein Boulevard after the Iraqi dictator gave a shipment of oil to the cash-strapped government of Kenneth Kaunda. Now that Saddam is dead and no longer so popular it has again been renamed, this time as Los Angeles Boulevard. But because there was already a Los Angeles Road, that too was renamed last year after national footballing hero Kalusha Bwalya.

Many political or nationalist renamings, it is true, can stand the test of time. There are countless streets and squares in France named after General Charles de Gaulle, and scarcely a substantial town in India without its MG Road in memory of Mahatma Gandhi. 

Some names, however, inevitably lose their appeal. In Madrid I bought my car from a Renault dealer in a street I was amazed to discover was still called the Calle del General Yagüe, a Francoist commander in the civil war known as the Butcher of Badajoz. The name was changed in 2017 to Calle de San Germán. 

A court has just ruled that another Madrid street, called the Calle de los Caídos de la División Azul, can retain its name because the fallen Spanish soldiers who fought for the Nazis on the eastern front might be considered victims of the war as well as perpetrators. 

But the lesson must be that there is little to be gained for mayors, governments or inhabitants if street names are changed purely for short-term political advantage, whether for celebration or denigration.

In our small village in Kent, there was not much scope for change, but change came anyway. There were always three principal roads: The Street, where the church is; Back Street, which runs parallel to it behind the village; and the main road, which joins them at the top and leads to the local towns in either direction. My first experience of the political or social motivations behind street-naming was when Back Street became Swan Lane (after a pub) and the main road was fancifully relabelled Poplar Road. 

Such cosmetic changes are innocent enough — who wants to live with an address on Back Street or the B2082? — and they have become part of the local geography. But somehow I doubt that Budapest’s Free Hong Kong Road will be called that a few years from now. 

victor.mallet@ft.com



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Western powers reignite Beijing anger after G7 and Nato warnings

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For more than six weeks, Taiwanese military officers wondered where the Chinese fighter jets had gone.

During May, only four entered the island’s air defence identification zone. In the first half of this month, there were incursions on only four days and a stretch of nine days without any activity at all. This compared to a previous pattern of as many as 20 incursions a month.

But on June 15, a day after US president Joe Biden and other Nato leaders issued a statement condemning China’s “stated ambitions and assertive behaviour”, 20 PLA fighter jets, four nuclear-capable bombers and four additional military aircraft entered Taiwan’s ADIZ. It was the largest number of planes ever dispatched by the People’s Liberation Army into the zone, with some of them also skirting around the southern tip and east coast of the island before turning back

One senior Taiwanese government official said Beijing could not restrain itself after the Nato communique — and a G7 summit statement issued just days earlier — criticised Beijing’s activities in the Taiwan Strait and its crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

“Beijing wanted to prove wrong those in the west whom they accuse of hyping a China threat theory,” the official said, referring to the reduced military activity in May and early June. “But of course they could not keep it up. Once Taiwan gets a little support, they have to react.”

Chinese analysts said Beijing had no choice but to show its resolve after the Biden administration accelerated its efforts to build a “united front” against China at the G7 and Nato summits — something President Xi Jinping’s administration had long feared but that never materialised when Donald Trump was US president.

“The G7 and Nato have been distorted into anti-China platforms,” said Victor Gao, a former Chinese diplomat now at the Center for China and Globalisation, a Beijing-backed think-tank. “There are increasingly large forces in China that believe if the US wants to single out China as its fundamental enemy, then let the US have an enemy.”

Beijing also responded to the G7’s criticism of its policies in Hong Kong with a show of force in the territory, where it recently snuffed out the only public commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre on Chinese soil. In the early hours of Thursday, police arrested senior staff at the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper for alleged “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security”.

A senior officer with the Hong Kong police force’s national security division later said the arrests were related in part to more than 30 articles published in the newspaper.

Beijing’s actions around Taiwan and in Hong Kong were matched by scathing rhetoric. Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesperson and one of China’s most outspoken diplomats, said the G7 communique “exposed the bad intentions of the US and a few other countries to create antagonism and widen differences with China”.

“The US is sick,” Zhao added. “The G7 should take its pulse and prescribe medicine for it.”

Such comments appeared to contradict recent instructions from Xi, who said last month that official propaganda should “set the right tone, be open and confident but also modest, humble and strive to create a credible, loveable and respectable image of China”.

Xi, however, also noted that China was involved in a “public opinion struggle” internationally. “Powerful anti-China forces in western society want to attack and discredit China,” Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador in Paris, said last week in a state media interview. “We must fight back to safeguard our own interests. Our sovereign security and development interests are inviolable.”

Yun Sun, a China foreign policy expert at the Stimson Center in Washington, said such rhetoric reflected growing alarm in Xi’s administration. “There is a real concern in Beijing that a united front is forming [and] includes many elements that China does not wish to see such as Taiwan, maritime security and human rights,” Sun said. “That’s why we are seeing some unusually harsh responses from Beijing on G7 and Nato.”

Hong Kong police blow out candles lit by activists to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Beijing responded to G7 criticism of its policies in Hong Kong with a show of force in the territory © AP

“Germany, France and other EU countries are hesitant to confront China as [openly as] the US,” added Shi Yinhong, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, who advises the State Council on foreign policy issues. “But they are now closer to the US when it comes to dealing with China.”

Some Chinese officials and analysts argue that while Beijing will continue to respond forcefully when criticised over Taiwan, Hong Kong or other “core interests”, this does not preclude co-operation with the US on other issues such as climate change or global tax reform.

Fu Ying, a former Chinese ambassador to the UK, said at a recent seminar that the Biden administration wanted to “prevent China from moving forward to replace the US”. But, she added, “we hope [technological and economic] competition can be managed to ensure it is on a positive track, pushing each other to seek joint development and improvement”.

Beijing “should stand firm on matters of principle but not be too distracted by anti-China hostility”, Gao said. “In the long term China will have a larger economy than the US — no one can change that. Time is on China’s side.”

Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing



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