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What is in the EU-China investment treaty?

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After seven years of talks the EU has secured one of its top priorities in relations with China: an investment agreement that Brussels insists will resolve longstanding problems faced by European companies.

But the agreement is likely to be controversial with human rights advocates, given allegations of abuses in China. It could also create friction with the incoming US administration of Joe Biden, who has made clear that he wants an alliance with the EU to bring joint pressure to bear against Beijing over aggressive trade practices. 

Businesses will also now want to study the small print of the new rights created by the agreement, and how they will be enforced. 

1. What does the deal do for the EU?

The deal tackles a number of EU grievances.

These include longstanding concerns that the bloc’s companies are being forced to share valuable technological knowhow in exchange for being allowed to compete on the Chinese market, along with fears that the country’s state-owned enterprises are unfairly favoured and that the Chinese system of state subsidies is opaque. 

The deal will “significantly improve the level playing field for EU investors”, including by “prohibiting forced technology transfers and other distortive practices”, the EU said in a statement.

Other parts of the deal concern specific sector-by-sector market access rights, removing barriers such as requirements for companies to have partnerships with local firms in joint ventures, and eliminating caps on levels of investment.

Areas where EU companies will win enhanced access rights include the automotive sector, telecoms equipment, cloud-computing, private healthcare and ancillary services for air transport. The deal will also put the EU on the same footing as the US when it comes to operating in the Chinese financial services market.

2. Does it resolve problems in the EU-China trade relationship?

Working with molten iron at a Dongbei Special Steel mill in Dalian, Liaoning province, China © Reuters

Speaking to the Financial Times on Wednesday, Valdis Dombrovskis, the EU’s trade commissioner, cautioned that the deal “is not a panacea to address all challenges linked to China, but it brings a number of welcome improvements”. 

Crucially, the investment treaty is far narrower in scope than the comprehensive free trade agreements that the EU has negotiated with the likes of Canada, Japan and — most recently — the UK. It essentially covers certain non-tariff barriers to business and investment.

Mr Dombrovskis identified overcapacity in steel production, unequal access to public procurement contracts and trade in counterfeit goods as issues in the EU-China trade relationship that the deal could not address.

The EU is also seeking to tackle broader issues, such as China’s use of industrial subsidies, through reform of the World Trade Organization.

“This agreement is just one element, just one thread in a complex tapestry of the EU-China relationship, and of course it is clear that many complex challenges still need to be addressed,” Mr Dombrovskis said.

3. What does China get out of it?

For China, the deal is good diplomacy: the incoming Biden administration in the US has made clear that it wants to build an alliance of democracies to put pressure on Beijing over both its human rights record and aggressive trade practices. The deal on the investment treaty strengthens ties with Brussels at a pivotal moment. 

China entered the talks with fewer market access goals than the EU, which argued that it was the victim of an unlevel playing field. Still, the deal locks in existing rights for Chinese companies in the EU market at a time when the EU is looking to expand its legal arsenal against unfair foreign competition.

It also offers China new openings in manufacturing and the growing EU market for renewable energy.

EU officials stress that the market opening on renewables is limited (capped at 5 per cent for each EU member state market) and contingent on reciprocal openness from China.

4. How will the deal affect relations with the new US administration?

Valdis Dombrovskis, EU trade commissioner, said the agreement brought a “number of welcome improvements” © Kenzo Tribouillard/Pool/AP

The EU has taken a risk by pushing ahead, particularly in the light of its parallel efforts to revive the transatlantic relationship after severe tensions during Donald Trump’s presidency.

Just four weeks ago, it publicly urged the US to join it in an alliance to assert the interests of the democratic world against “authoritarian powers” and to meet the “strategic challenge” of China.

Critics say the EU deal undermines that call for partnership; the EU insists that it is merely winning similar trade benefits to those established in the so-called “Phase 1” trade deal struck by Mr Trump with Beijing. 

The EU also argues that the deal can help other countries be more assertive in their dealings with China by establishing a new reference point in terms of commitments from Beijing.

“We want to engage very closely with the US,” Mr Dombrovskis said. “I am not seeing the Phase 1 deal or our comprehensive agreement on investment as hindering this co-operation in any way.”

5. Is the deal consistent with EU goals on human rights?

The EU claims that “universal, indivisible and interdependent” human rights are “at the heart” of its relations with other countries. But the accord has raised concerns among rights activists because of allegations — denied by Beijing — that Uighur Muslims detained in the western region of Xinjiang are being used as forced labour. 

The bloc says it has won unprecedented commitments from Beijing, including that China shall make “continued and sustained efforts” to ratify two International Labour Organization conventions against forced labour — but human rights advocates argue this does not go far enough as a guarantee. 

Reinhard Bütikofer, chair of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with China, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday that “it is ridiculous [for the EU] to try selling that as a success”.

The EU emphasises that the agreement includes a strong “implementation and enforcement mechanism” that covers the commitments on labour rights, as well as other dispute-settlement arrangements.

Mr Dombrovskis said that neither the Phase 1 deal with the US nor a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreed this year by Asian and Pacific countries have “sustainable development commitments coming anywhere close” to the EU-China accord.

Tensions over this point are certain to feature prominently during the EU’s work on ratifying the agreement — a process that will require endorsement of the deal by the European Parliament.





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Bond sell-off roils markets, ex-Petrobras chief hits back, Ghana’s first Covax vaccines

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The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury exceeded 1.5 per cent for the first time in a year and the outgoing head of Petrobras warns Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro against state controlled fuel prices. Plus, the FT’s Africa editor, David Pilling, discusses the Covax vaccine rollout in low-income countries. 

Wall Street stocks sell off as government bond rout accelerates

https://www.ft.com/content/ea46ee81-89a2-4f23-aeff-2a099c02432c

Ousted Petrobras chief hits back at Bolsonaro 

https://www.ft.com/content/1cd6c9fb-3201-4815-9f4f-61a4f0881856?

Africa will pay more for Russian Covid vaccine than ‘western’ jabs

https://www.ft.com/content/ffe40c7d-c418-4a93-a202-5ee996434de7


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Petrobras/Bolsonaro: bossa boots | Financial Times

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“Brazil is not for beginners.” Composer Tom Jobim’s remark about his homeland stands as a warning to gung-ho foreign investors. Shares in Petrobras have fallen almost a fifth since President Jair Bolsonaro said he would replace the widely respected chief executive of the oil giant.

Firebrand Bolsonaro campaigned on a free-market platform. Now he is reverting to the interventionism of leftist predecessors. It is the latest reminder that a country with huge potential has big political and social problems.

Bolsonaro reacted to fuel protests by pushing for a retired army general to supplant chief executive Roberto Castello Branco, who had refused to lower prices. This is politically advantageous but economically short-sighted.

Fourth-quarter ebitda beat expectations at R$60bn (US$11bn), announced late on Wednesday, a 47 per cent increase on the previous quarter. This partly reflected the reversal of a R$13bn charge for healthcare costs. Investors now have to factor the cost of possible fuel subsidies into forecasts. The last time Petrobras was leaned on, it set the company back about R$60bn (US$24bn at the time). That equates to 40 per cent of forecast ebitda for 2021.

At just over 8 times forward earnings, shares trade at a sharp discount to global peers. Forcing Petrobras to cut fuel prices will make sales of underperforming assets harder to pull off and debt reduction less certain. Bidders may fear the obligation to cap prices will apply to them too.

A booming local stock market, rock bottom interest rates and low levels of foreign debt are giving Bolsonaro scope to spend his way out of the Covid-19 crisis. But the economy remains precarious. Public debt stands at 90 per cent of gross domestic product. The real — at R$5.40 per US dollar — remains near record lows. Brazil’s credit is rated junk by big agencies.

Rising developed market yields will make financings costlier for developing nations such as Brazil. So will high-handed treatment of minority investors. It sends a dire signal when a government with an economic stake of just over a third uses its voting majority to deliver a boardroom coup.

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South Africa’s economy is ‘dangerously overstretched’, officials warn

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South Africa is pushing ahead with plans to shore up its precarious public finances as officials warn the economy is “dangerously overstretched” despite the recent boom in commodity prices.

Finance minister Tito Mboweni hailed “significant improvement” as he delivered the annual budget on Wednesday and said that state debts that will hit 80 per cent of GDP this year will peak below 90 per cent by 2025, lower than initially feared.

But Mboweni warned that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government was not “swimming in cash” despite a major recent tax windfall. The Treasury now expects to collect almost 100bn rand ($6.8bn) more tax than expected this year after a surge in earnings for miners. This compares with a projected overall tax shortfall of more than 200bn rand. Still, the finance minister made clear that spending cutbacks would be necessary.

“Continuing on the path of fiscal consolidation during the economic fallout was a difficult decision. However, on this, we are resolute,” Mboweni said. “We remain adamant that fiscal prudence is the best way forward. We cannot allow our economy to have feet of clay.”

The pandemic has hit South Africa hardest on the continent, with 1.5m cases recorded despite a tough lockdown. An intense second wave is receding and the first vaccinations of health workers started this month. More than 10bn rand will be allocated to vaccines over the next two years, Mboweni said.

‘We remain adamant that fiscal prudence is the best way forward’ – South African finance minister Tito Mboweni © Sumaya Hisham/Reuters

Even before the pandemic’s economic hit, a decade of stagnant growth, corruption and bailouts for indebted state companies such as the Eskom electricity monopoly rotted away what was once a prudent fiscus compared with its emerging market peers. 

Government spending has grown four per cent a year since 2008, versus 1.5 per cent annual growth in real GDP. The country’s credit rating was cut to junk status last year. Despite this year’s cash boost, the state expects to borrow well over 500bn rand per year over the next few years. The cost to service state debts is set to rise from 232bn rand this year to 338bn rand by 2023, or about 20 cents of every rand in tax.

The fiscal belt-tightening will have implications for South Africa’s spending on health and social services. On Wednesday Mboweni announced below-inflation increases in the social grants that form a safety net for millions of South Africans. “We are actually seeing, for the first time that I can recall, cuts in the social welfare budget,” said Geordin Hill-Lewis, Mboweni’s shadow in the opposition Democratic Alliance.

The finance minister is also facing a battle with union allies of the ruling African National Congress over a plan to cap growth in public sector wages. South Africa lost 1.4m jobs over the past year, according to statistics released this week. The jobless rate — including those discouraged from looking for work — was nearly 43 per cent in the closing months of 2020.

The South African treasury expects the economy to rebound 3.3 per cent this year, after a 7.2 per cent drop last year, and to expand 2.2 per cent and 1.6 per cent next year and in 2023 — growth rates that are widely seen as too low in the long run to sustain healthy public finances.

“The key challenges for South Africa do however persist, clever funding decisions aside,” Razia Khan, chief Middle East and Africa economist for Standard Chartered, said. “Weak structural growth and the Eskom debt overhang must still be addressed.” 



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