In 2013, China gave its financing of infrastructure around the world a new narrative, billing it as a modern-day Silk Road, a reinvention of historic trading routes between Europe and Asia. Last year, China’s lending got another new name, the rather unflattering “debt-trap diplomacy.”
In 2018—because the infrastructure plan formally referred to as the Belt and Street Initiative marked its fifth anniversary—the refrain round the specter of China’s “debt traps” grew louder.
The identify surfaced in the title of a 2017 evaluation by an Indian strategic commentator that argued China was providing funding for unsound tasks to safe Chinese language entry to assets or native markets, quite than to assist native economies, and in consequence “countries are becoming ensnared in a debt trap that leaves them vulnerable to China’s influence.” On the shut of that yr, when a cash-strapped Sri Lanka handed over its China-financed port to a Chinese language state-run firm on a 99-year lease, the road of argument seemed ominously prescient.
This year China saw several countries reject or review its lending—especially in the wake of elections, which bring uncertainty that Beijing hasn’t contended with at home. The US, meanwhile, issued numerous stark warnings about borrowing from China in forums from Africa to Asia. Even at home, as its economy slowed, pledges of massive spending overseas prompted domestic criticism. Still, the year saw another $60 billion commitment to African nations, a new focus on funding digital infrastructure, and critiques of the idea that China’s lending is any more opportunistic than that of other economies.
Here’s a look at the ups-and-downs of China’s attempts to build influence by building stuff this year, and what to expect in the next.
- 1 January: A setback in South Asia
- 2 March: A US warning about “predatory” Chinese language debt
- 3 May: Sri Lanka borrows—again—from China
- 4 July: Pakistan’s new government murmurs about debt
- 5 August: Malaysia’s $20 billion rejection of China
- 6 September: China defends its role to African leaders
- 7 October: The US has a new development agency to counter China
- 8 November: Pence tells Asia the US can supply a “better option”
- 9 December: The military side of China’s flagship project in Pakistan
January: A setback in South Asia
As part of its investments in South Asian nations surrounding rival India—which include a flagship project involving a port and a highway in Pakistan, and the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka—China has agreed to lend $24 billion towards power plants, a port and train infrastructure.
But early this year, the Voice of America reported, Bangladesh terminated a plan to have a Chinese state-run firm construct a 214-kilometer (130 miles) highway from capital Dhaka to its northeast. Reports said Bangladesh officials made allegations of corruption against the state-backed Chinese Harbor Engineering Company (CHEC) amid unhappiness over the price tag of $2 billion. Bangladesh will now finance the highway itself at a slightly reduced cost of around $1.5 billion.
March: A US warning about “predatory” Chinese language debt
On the eve of his first (and only) official visit to Africa, former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson drew a sharp contrast between US aid and lending in Africa, and China’s—one of many warnings from the US on the topic this year.
“The United States pursues, develops sustainable growth that bolsters institutions, strengthens rule of law, and builds the capacity of African countries to stand on their own two feet,” Tillerson stated, talking at George Mason College forward of a visit that may take him to Ethiopia, Kenya, Chad, and Nigeria. “This stands in stark contrast to China’s approach, which encourages dependency using opaque contracts, predatory loan practices, and corrupt deals that mire nations in debt and undercut their sovereignty.”
Regretfully, can’t stay long.
That warning came just days after a report by the Center for Global Development, a US-based research nonprofit, warned that eight countries were at serious risk of above-average debt because of Chinese lending. The only African nation among the eight—Djibouti—is a worrying inclusion for the US, given it’s home to a major US military base, and as of last year, China’s first overseas military base as well. Djibouti government debt went from 50% of GDP (pdf, p. 1) five years ago to over 80% (pdf, p. 14). The US is concerned that like in Sri Lanka, China could eventually take control of a key port in Djibouti.
“There is nowhere else in the world where the US military is essentially co-located in close proximity to a country it considers a strategic competitor,” Kate Almquist Knopf, director of the Protection Division’s Africa Middle for Strategic Research informed Overseas Coverage, including that, “this is not something the Pentagon is used to.”
Nonetheless, Tillerson’s exhortation to decide on America was undercut by the very fact he was fired by his boss two days into the journey—the identical boss who reportedly referred to some African nations as “shithole” nations early this yr. The information that Donald Trump was changing Tillerson broke simply after he returned.
“It doesn’t augur well for the long-term message of America to Africa, especially with the message he sounded, which was ‘beware of China,’” Pat Utomi, professor of political financial system at Lagos Enterprise Faculty, advised Reuters. “This means that the warning he was giving was of no consequence.”
May: Sri Lanka borrows—again—from China
Even after swapping debt for fairness in its port and giving China an almost century-long lease, Sri Lanka is battling its money owed. Within the first six months of the yr its curiosity funds totaled $2 billion—whereas authorities revenues have been about $5 billion. In Might, the federal government of Maithripala Sirisena—who had campaigned in the 2015 elections towards extreme credit score that might make the nation “a colony”—took a brand new $1 billion mortgage from the China Improvement Financial institution. Issues might be much more difficult subsequent yr, when the nation has to pay over $four billion in curiosity, based on Reuters.
July: Pakistan’s new government murmurs about debt
In the wake of the fallout in Malaysia, Imran Khan’s win in Pakistan’s July national elections raised questions about whether the new government in Islamabad would also walk back from Chinese debt. In fact, not long after Khan’s cabinet was installed, officials expressed concern about the former government’s deals with China. While those complaints were walked back as Pakistan faced the loss of US military aid and a possible balance-of-payments crisis just months later, one project was scaled back by $2 billion. Given the $60 billion size of the flagship China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, that’s just a drop in the ocean.
August: Malaysia’s $20 billion rejection of China
Since Mahathir Mohamad came to power in May elections on a wave of anger about the corruption of former prime minister Najib Razak, the country has been coming to terms with a multi-billion-dollar corruption scandal at the 1MDB state fund that helped send Malaysian debt soaring to over 1 trillion ringgit ($251 billion).
Mahathir introduced in July that he was reconsidering China-financed tasks of greater than $20 billion agreed to by the earlier authorities. These included the East Coast Rail hyperlink undertaking, a 690km (430 miles) line that might have related the nation’s ports on the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca, in addition to two pure fuel pipelines. In August, after a go to to Beijing—the place he stated nations like his didn’t need “a new version of colonialism“—he cancelled the projects.
How Hwee Young/Pool via Reuters
No hard feelings, right?
“It’s all about pouring in too much money which we cannot afford, we cannot repay and also because we don’t need these projects for Malaysia at this moment,” Mahathir advised the Related Press.
Elsewhere in the region, Myanmar sought to scale back a massive $7 billion port in its troubled Rakhine state again out of fears that it involves too much debt for the Southeast Asian country—in November it signed an agreement with China to go ahead with the project at a reduced cost of $1.3 billion in the initial phase.
September: China defends its role to African leaders
China welcomed leaders from almost every African nation to Beijing for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), the main pillar of China’s investment and lending to the continent, and an opportunity for leader Xi Jinping to characterize China’s spending as supportive, not inefficient or predatory. Xi announced that China would invest another $60 billion in Africa. While the amount was the same as its previous pledge in 2015, it represented a departure from its traditional pattern of doubling or tripling its financial commitments in Africa at each forum.
“Resources for our co-operation are not to be spent on any vanity projects but in places where they count the most,” Xi advised African enterprise leaders. However, the next month noticed Sierra Leone cancel plans for a China-funded airport. Tang Xiaoyang, deputy director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Middle for International Coverage, says that it’s commonplace for a share of preliminary tasks to fall via. “It is a common practice for commercial projects that the plans/MOUs may not be realized because of financial constraints or other kinds of changes,” Tang advised Quartz.
On the discussion board, China additionally introduced it might supply 50,000 scholarships for Africans to review in China, setting off a backlash from Chinese language social media customers who questioned why the cash shouldn’t be used for educating China’s personal deprived. On microblog platform Weibo, Cussed Brother Tao famous (hyperlink in Chinese language) the issues of getting an schooling in China’s rural areas, and requested, “If we can invest a large sum of money overseas, do we really not have any money [for this]?”
In response, a number of Chinese government officials, scholars and experts began posting articles on Weibo explaining the benefits of investing in Africa, noting the abundance of natural resources like copper and cobalt.
The identical month because the Africa discussion board, China pledged to take a position $5 billion in Venezuela, a once-rich nation now in the throes of an financial disaster, unable to make curiosity funds on $50 billion in worldwide bonds. In change, Venezuela will improve oil exports to China by one million barrels a day. Matt Ferchen, who runs the China and the creating world program on the Carnegie-Tsinghua Middle for International Coverage, argues that the “dysfunctional” relationship with Venezuela is an indication that, counter to the dominant narrative about Chinese language debt ensnaring different nations, the nation that should worry extreme and unsustainable Chinese language lending probably the most is China.
Also that month, a surprise opposition election victory over incumbent Maldives president Abdulla Yameen, who racked up large amounts of Chinese debt in his years in power, was followed by the new government trying to tally the damage—and rekindling its relationship with India.
October: The US has a new development agency to counter China
Trump signed off on the new US International Development Finance Corporation (USDFC), a $60 billion aid agency aimed at providing financial investment to developing countries—a countermeasure to China’s heavy investments.
USDFC folds in two previously existing agencies, but will have more financial flexibility, for example to make equity deals, apart from offering development aid. The agency revamp is a sign that China’s spending, and the US’s ensuing heartburn, will end up providing more options to developing countries, Quartz’s Yinka Adegoke argues. The US reformed and effectively doubled the budget of an agency the Trump administration was earlier planning to kill off in large part because of China, he says.
Over in Indonesia, where anti-Chinese sentiment often rises around elections, frequently targeted at the country’s own affluent ethnic Chinese, lending from China has become a focus of campaigning for presidential elections due in April. President Joko Widodo has courted Chinese investment and aid, but in October his rival’s campaign announced Prabowo Subianto would review China-funded projects in the Southeast Asian country if he won.
November: Pence tells Asia the US can supply a “better option”
Picking up Tillerson’s refrain—and doubling down on his own fiery October speech against China—US vice president Mike Pence warned Asian countries against borrowing from China at the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit (APEC).
“Projects they support are often unsustainable and of poor quality. And too often, they come with strings attached and lead to staggering debt,” stated Pence. Contrasting the US to China, Pence introduced the US because the “better option” to create financial prosperity in the area, a associate that doesn’t “drown our partners in a sea of debt.”
Despite these warnings, China made advances in the US’s own backyard that month. Chile in November joined the more than half dozen Latin American and Caribbean countries that have agreed to be part of the Belt-and-Road program. Panama, which signed on to Belt-and-Road in 2017 after abandoning Taiwan as a diplomatic ally, this year accepted a Chinese bid to build the next bridge over the Panama Canal, and received a state visit in December from Xi in the wake of the G-20.
December: The military side of China’s flagship project in Pakistan
The Gwadar port in Pakistan, part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
While Chinese officials have repeatedly denied that the Belt-and-Road plan involves an expansion of military power, a report in December revealed a military component to the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. According to a New York Times report, Pakistan’s Air Force is cooperating with China to build weapons, including fighter jets, for the Chinese army.
Lijian Zhao, deputy chief of mission on the Chinese language embassy in Islamabad, took to Twitter to refute the Occasions report. Zhao referred to as the report “Western propaganda” and stated that CPEC is a “purely an economic program.”
According to the Times report, Pakistan is the only country to be granted access to the military service of China’s Beidou satellite navigation system. China’s pitching Beidou, which now has more than 30 satellites and began general global service on Thursday (Dec. 27), as an alternative to the US’s military-developed GPS system.
The sat-nav system is a part of China’s efforts to steer its infrastructure cooperation with creating nations more and more in the path of superior know-how, connectivity, and area exploration—tasks that might be much less seen than the sorts of large development China has funded up to now, and which are essential to Beijing because it seeks to be on the forefront of technological advance amid suspicion from developed economies.