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Emily de La Bruyère on China’s BRI borrower squeeze

COVID-19 has devastated the developing world. The world’s poorest countries account for more than three quarters [1] of global COVID-19 cases. Currencies are plummeting. Debt is projected to soar — and debt payments to stall. To offer something of a cushion, G-20 members pledged [2] in April to suspend interest collection for loans to 77 of the world’s neediest countries.

China professed to adopt the pledge. But Beijing put a caveat [3] on its commitment. Beijing exempted preferential loans issued by the China Export Import (EXIM Bank), declaring that those would be adjusted only through bilateral negotiations with recipient countries. Opaque even under normal conditions, EXIM Bank loans are China’s major form of lending to developing countries. Beijing has remained mute on what, if any, adjustments it has made to these loans in response to the COVID crisis, for which beneficiaries, or on what terms.

China’s subtle circumvention of the G-20 pledge exemplifies Beijing’s neocolonial strategy in the developing world. Beijing’s legerdemain also highlights its asymmetric strategy vis-a-vis the developed world. Beijing does not just exploit developing nations to enrich itself and gain leverage over the developed world. Beijing also marshals the dependence of developing countries to subvert the international institutions and resources that might otherwise protect against its imperialism.

China, it is important to remember, has over $16 billion outstanding in loans from the World Bank, making it one of the bank’s major borrowers. Intended for developing countries, those loans typically come at an interest rate of just over one percent. Meanwhile, the “preferential” EXIM Bank loans that China offers the developing world tend to feature interest rates of four to six percent. As Benn Steil of the Council on Foreign Relations puts it, “there is very little logic for the world’s largest lender to be borrowing on very concessionary terms, for their own projects, from the World Bank. If you accept that money is fungible, for all intents and purposes China is borrowing cheap from the developed world and turning around and loaning that money at higher interest rates to the developing world.”

EXIM Bank loans undergird Beijing’s international industrial program. They have financed more than 1,800 global infrastructure projects, accruing a balance of over $141 billion. EXIM Bank financing in Africa alone exceeds $84 billion in a total of at least 46 countries. Steil explains that Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative operates entirely through the EXIM Bank. The Belt and Road might itself be conceived of as a bumper sticker for a program that the EXIM Bank has been implementing for decades.

EXIM-backed projects serve Beijing’s industrial program at the literal expense of target countries. EXIM Bank usually requires that these projects be undertaken — and often, upon completion, operated — by Chinese companies, most of them state-owned. Of the dozens of documented EXIM-financed port and airfield projects in Africa, all are undertaken by state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Chinese government policy mandates that EXIM Bank-financed infrastructure projects import materials, technologies, and services from China totaling at least 50 percent of loan value. These policy documents note explicitly that EXIM Bank preferential loans are used to support “economically productive projects that drive the export of China’s electromechanical products and complete sets of equipment.”

Well before COVID-19, China’s “preferential” lending threatened to cripple developing economies. Between 2006 and 2017, Kenya accrued almost $10 billion in infrastructure loans from China. Some 87 percent [4] of Nairobi’s bilateral debt servicing payments go to Beijing. Much of that debt stems from the EXIM Bank-financed, $4.7 billion Mombasa-Nairobi-Navaisha Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), [5] built and operated by Chinese SOEs. Completed in 2019, the SGR is Kenya’s most expensive infrastructure project since its independence. The railway cost about three times the international average per kilometer. And the SGR has lost money since its launch. Its profitability hinged on Beijing’s plans to build an industrial park along the route; Beijing has since suspended those plans. Nairobi was counting on revenue from the railway to repay Beijing.

Now, as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc, Kenya’s economy is crumbling. Remittances [6] have plummeted. Agricultural exports have been halved. Tourism has collapsed [7]. (That is not to mention locust [8] invasions and historic floods.) And no public information indicates that Beijing intends to offer loan relief.

The conventional term for China’s approach is “debt trap diplomacy.” [9] “Debt-propelled neo-colonialism” might be more apt. EXIM Bank loans exist within a larger apparatus that builds complete, Chinese-controlled value chains on top of the developing world’s resources. The EXIM Bank-financed Benguela rail line — operating on Chinese rail standards and built with Chinese equipment — links Chinese-owned copper-cobalt mines as well as refining and processing plants in Zambia and the DRC to a Chinese-built mineral terminal [10] at Angola’s Lobito Port. With these investments, Beijing generates demand for its industry. It also secures access to valuable resources.

And Beijing uses this approach to cement influence over the global system.

Some of Beijing’s means of influence are physical. Take cobalt, [11] a necessary input for everything from new energy vehicle batteries to aeroengine superalloys to advanced medical equipment. The DRC produces over 60 percent of the world’s cobalt. China invests in more than half of the DRC’s cobalt-endowed mines and — thanks to EXIM-financed infrastructure projects — connects those to Chinese transportation infrastructures, processing facilities, and trade hubs. These investments allow Beijing to import more than 85 percent of the DRC’s cobalt ore and concentrate exports, and to produce more than 60 percent of the world’s refined cobalt.

China has already shown its willingness to use equivalent mineral dominance for coercive ends. In 2010, Beijing cut off [12] rare earth exports to Japan in retaliation over territorial disputes. More systemically, control over raw material inputs grants Chinese players an advantage in their industrial application: How can Ford compete with Nio over new-energy vehicles if it relies on cobalt controlled by Beijing? How does the U.S. implement the Green New Deal if Beijing governs supplies of the raw inputs necessary for renewable energy technologies?

Beijing also uses the developing world to generate virtual forms of influence. Countries dependent on China comprise a formidable voting bloc in democratic international institutions. In a July 2020 UN Human Rights Council vote, 52 countries, [13] not including China, supported Beijing’s new national security law for Hong Kong. Twenty-seven opposed it. The supporters were predominantly developing countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia; 43 are signatories of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

At first glance, this might seem the traditional neocolonial model. But China has updated that model for a globalized era. Beijing fuels its variant of neocolonialism by weaponizing [14] its integration into the international system. China claims the resources — World Bank loans, for example — that come of participation in international institutions without fulfilling the corresponding obligations. Beijing uses those resources to play bank, on the rest of the world’s dime, for its own strategic ends.

In doing so, China claims an asymmetric advantage. By joining the World Trade Organization [15] (WTO), Beijing obtains access to information on the world’s top economies, while refusing to be transparent about its own. Beijing reaps the reputational and technological boons of operating a BSL-4 laboratory in Wuhan, while failing to maintain appropriate safety protocols. China benefits from its G-20 status, while ducking the organization’s commitment to global economic stability. Bought off by the promise of China’s market, or blinded by optimistic ideals, the international system looks passively on.

For the G-20 to make good on its commitment to the developing world, it must hold China accountable. For the international system to protect and promote the global order, it must resist Beijing’s weaponized cooperation. That can start with immediate tasks relevant to COVID recovery: pushing back at China’s interest collection practices and stripping China of its “developing country” label that allows the world’s second-largest economy to claim concessionary loans from the World Bank.

But a more ambitious response will also be necessary. If Beijing is using the World Bank, or the World Trade Organization, or the U.N. Human Rights Council, to colonize the developing world and manipulate the developed world, China should not be a member of the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, or the U.N. Human Rights Council. And in cases where the U.S. opts to withdraw from organizations that Beijing has subverted — the World Health Organization, for example — the U.S. must offer a positive alternative.

China’s asymmetric strategy threatens global, and U.S., norms and prosperity. This affront should spur a bipartisan response. It should activate labor interests on the left, national security hawks on the right, and a country built on fundamental shared ideals. It should activate the economic interests whose resources Beijing siphons and the cosmopolitan interests whose international institutions Beijing subverts.

Such activation may be beginning. Both President-elect Biden and President Trump have backed domestic investment plans [16] that target China’s parasitic industrial offensive in the United States. But Beijing’s strategy is global. And the threat is immediate. Washington will have to follow through on those promises, in a bipartisan fashion. It will then need to extend them internationally, in a multilateral fashion. China’s offensive demands a new New Deal combined with a new Bretton Woods.