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NEW DEAL for the Balkans – China and BRICS

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Capital rich and ready to spend, China might be outplaying many Western rivals, even maybe Russia, in the Balkans. Chinese investments boost the influence, something already see in Africa. Is the Balkans next Chinese Africa – opportunities potent filed of contests with the west that loses its orientation, speed and grip?

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will soon visit Europe again to participate in the Central and Eastern European (CEE) – China Summit to be hosted in Belgrade. This visit is a continuation of last year’s 16+1 initiative held in Bucharest which appeared to offer considerable promise. At that meeting, leaders called for wide-ranging multilateral cooperation aimed at doubling trade and investment in five years.

The outcome of last year’s forum was a four-point proposal for a comprehensive, friendly and cooperative partnership. The main pillars of the proposal included enhancing political trust between China and CEE countries, exploring economic and trade potential, creating a large number of cooperative projects, and strengthening cultural and people-to-people exchanges.
One must ask why China seems so interested in the Balkans. Although some countries – Greece and Serbia are examples – may seem to have some appeal, China is in fact showing an overall interest in the region.

That interest appears to go beyond markets – in fact, the Balkan markets could be considered insignificant for trade. It also seems to go beyond the need to secure a source of commodities, although the Balkans are rich in natural resources. Rather, it appears that China is focused on infrastructure and access to Western European markets.

China’s long-term strategy views Serbia as a strategic partner in the region, and it believes that Belgrade can fill the role of a European transportation hub. An agreement to construct a high-speed railway between Belgrade and Budapest was signed in November 2013. With construction set to begin in 2015 and finish in just two years, the railway highlights China’s interest in infrastructure projects. The project, worth 2.5 billion euro ($3.112 billion), will be financed by the China Development Bank and executed by Chinese state-owned enterprises. Of note is the number of Chinese workers engaged in the project.

Take a closer look, and this approach suggests a Chinese strategy of ensuring greater access to Western Europe to promote its own commercial activities. One of Beijing’s aims is to advance the New Silk road project by accelerating investments in regional infrastructure links and creating a large network of ports, logistic centers, and railways to distribute Chinese products and bolster the speed of East-West trade.

The starting point in this network is the port of Piraeus in Greece, which has attracted continued and significant Chinese investment since 2009, partly through COSCO Pacific, a global shipping giant. Piraeus has subsequently become the main entry point for Chinese goods in Europe, shortening normal shipping times by one week. China has also shown interest in the port of Thessaloniki (Greece), among others in the region, including Bar in Montenegro.

China’s efforts to set up logistics bases started with the Thriasis hub in Greece and then continued in other countries of the region. A new and efficient railway route through the Balkans is the perfect picture of a speedy distribution network.

However, given the low productivity of the Balkans, we can surmise that China is prepared to sacrifice short-term profits while it focuses on pursuing a trade-substituting investment strategy. This approach would allow the Chinese to set up shop on the edge of the EU. That in turn could potentially allow Chinese companies to circumvent trade restrictions and export products directly to a market of 800 million people, thanks to free trade agreements that Balkans countries enjoy with the EU.

China also has an interest in uncovering the Balkan Peninsula’s unexploited business potential through long-term strategic investments. It is aiming to do so by penetrating local strategic markets, not only in infrastructure but also in energy, telecommunications and agriculture.
Especially attractive is the Balkan’s energy sector, where major Western utilities are unwilling to make risky investments. This market is giving China the opportunity to roll out its green expertise and compete on a global scale, aiming to become a leader in the clean energy market niche, based on the Green Credit Directive, which just celebrated its second anniversary.

In fact, China has already initiated many investments in the energy sector in Serbia, where an agreement worth 2 billion euro was signed with EPS, Serbia’s power utility. Agreements have also been made in Bosnia and Herzegovina, through the Stanari project, worth 350 million euro, among others in the region.

On the other hand, the debt-burdened Balkans, in urgent need of major rescue packages and infrastructure investment, are courting foreign investors. Lack of greenfield investment has been the main problem for the transitioning Balkan economies, which have received less than 1 percent of the world total. The loose regulation practices, lax public procurement rules, and labor regulations of the Balkans make the picture more appealing.

The CEE-China initiative looks similar to other Chinese market penetration strategies, one example being the China-Latin America Permanent Forum.
Chinese trade with Latin America has grown more than 20-fold over the last ten years, with China overtaking the European Union as Latin America’s second biggest trade partner. In this region, China has the largest share of two-way trade, imbuing the markets with Chinese exports and importing natural resources back home. Chinese investment in Latin America is also expanding, principally in the energy and natural resources sectors, with the objective to get closer to the big market of the United States.

It is clear that the Balkan economies are in bad shape and urgently need investment. China seems to recognize this, but setting up shop on the edge of EU is the first step towards striking deals inside it. Beijing is building assets and buying future stocks in a region closely linked with Western Europe. Capital rich and ready to spend, China might be outplaying many Western rivals in the Balkans.

Chinese investment will no doubt present opportunities to buy influence – a fact that will need to be carefully assessed by EU concerns.

 

Permitted by and taken from the www.thediplomat.com  (under title: China’s Balkan Gamble – Why is China investing so much in the debt-burdened Balkans?)

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How Local Governments in China can Utilize New Infrastructure Policy to Promote Development

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Authors: Chan Kung and Wei Hongxu*

In an effort to promote economic recovery, the central government, local governments, and enterprises have placed high expectations on the investment of new infrastructure, hoping it would promote the development of the digital economy, so as to enhance the internal driving force of economic development. Especially when the scale of local special bonds is expected to be increased and again issued ahead of schedule, many local governments hope to seize the opportunity of digital economy development and increase investment in new infrastructure areas to drive regional economic development. Unlike the conventional economy and conventional infrastructure investment, the new infrastructure is not a simple way to boost investment, but rather to help the conventional industries realize digital and intelligent transformation as soon as possible, and to create new consumption, new manufacturing, and new services. While the new infrastructure investment brings a new economic model, it is different from the past in terms of content, mode, and financing channels. It requires local governments to make corresponding changes with market-oriented thinking.

New infrastructure investment is not only the demand side of local users, but also the supply side of technology investment. From the perspective of the scope of new infrastructure, new infrastructure projects include 5G base stations, ultra-high voltage (UHV) electricity, industrial Internet, intercity high-speed railway, intercity rail transit, new energy vehicle charging piles, artificial intelligence, and Big Data centers. At present, rail transit and new energy infrastructure are not much different from conventional infrastructure investment. The degree of local participation of UHV electricity is limited, while the investment in other aspects, such as 5G base stations and Big Data centers, is relatively mature in technology and has good market supply capacity. In other aspects, it is more necessary to start from the aspects of technology research and industrial cultivation, and to invest in projects that encourage innovation and industrial park construction. Therefore, this requires not only clear investment objectives on the demand side, but also needs to expand the supply side such as technology research and application at the same time, which undoubtedly increases the complexity of new infrastructure investment.

At the same time, the sources and financing channels of new infrastructure investment still need to be explored. Recently, local governments in China have begun planning to finance new infrastructure projects through issuing special bonds, and many local governments have put new infrastructure projects on their agenda. Some market analysts believe that at present, 5G is still mainly invested in base stations. Generally, telecommunications companies such as China Unicom and Mobile Communications can invest on their own without issuing special bonds, thereby the special bonds can be invested in projects related to data centers. However, such projects are only available in first-tier cities, and there are not many such projects in second-tier, third-tier, fourth-tier, and fifth-tier cities. New infrastructure projects should be more market-driven and local governments should avoid excessive involvement via direct investment in industrial projects. Local governments also need to promote the public-private partnership (PPP) model and introduce more social capital to improve efficiency and broaden financing sources.

Even for new infrastructure projects funded by special bonds, attention should be paid to the financing capacity of the projects to avoid adding to the financial burden. There are two main ideas for the new infrastructure special bond declaration projects in many provinces. One is to build a digital information application platform at the county and district level based on the resources of the provincial and municipal cloud platforms. The second is to promote the optimization and upgrading of conventional infrastructure projects with the theme of digital and wisdom. Some local finance people worry that many of these projects are packaged around the concept of “new infrastructure” and are mostly non-yielding or low-yielding projects that may require the government to cover future bond payments. Therefore, the special bond for new infrastructure construction should be invested in public welfare projects that can generate income, rather than public welfare projects that do not.

At the same time, there are new requirements for investment entities in new infrastructure investment. Some financial institutions said that after the issuance of new infrastructure special bonds, most of them will eventually be invested in local urban projects. However, local urban projects were good at conventional infrastructure construction, unfamiliar with new infrastructure construction, and lacks experience in new infrastructure project operation. If we speed up the construction of new infrastructure projects without considering the actual situation, it will easily lead to the mismatch between the capacity and the project requirements, and drag on the development of local governments and enterprises. In particular, unlike conventional investment in forming fixed assets, a considerable part of new infrastructure investment in research, personnel training, and other forms of intangible assets will be formed. The conventional urban investment model does not have the ability to use and dispose of these assets. At the same time, the large amount of hardware equipment invested in the new infrastructure is different from the conventional “iron and steel foundation”. Its wear and tear, operation, and upgrading all require continuous follow-up investment, which cannot be “invested all at once.” These are also not available in some conventional urban investment enterprises. If the local government cultivates and supports relevant enterprises by means of industrial investment, it needs more consideration in terms of income distribution and asset management. Such investment cannot be simply measured by the unit of land and capital, but more in the form of equity investment such as industrial funds and venture capital. In this respect, the local government needs to have the investment entities and relevant personnel with the ability to invest in relevant industries.

Different from the past, local governments need to play their roles in market construction and maintenance, investment entities, and end-users in promoting new infrastructure investment and the development of the digital economy. In the cultivation of the digital market, market demand, and the maintenance of the market order, local governments should play the role as a supervisor, take the development of the market as the guide, and develop the local digital market. In terms of investment, it is necessary to start with basic research and development and personnel training, promote market-oriented investment and technological innovation to enhance the competitiveness of the digital industry. In terms of end-users, it is necessary to integrate their own digital resources, establish a public digital space, and expand digital demand with the digital transformation of public services and government affairs as the direction. These three new roles are the basic problems to be solved in the process of promoting new infrastructure.

While much attention has been paid to new infrastructure, the reality is that, in terms of overall size, it needs to be recognized that infrastructure investment is still dominated by conventional infrastructure projects, with new infrastructure as defined by the market accounting for less than 15%. ANBOUND is not a proponent of separating infrastructure from the old and the new, so one cannot fully “bet” on new infrastructure to revive the post-pandemic economy. From the perspective of economic development trends and current reality, the role of new infrastructure is to promote the coordinated and integrated development of digital technology to industry and regional economy. Therefore, local governments need to make good use of fiscal expansion policies and financing tools to build new infrastructure, rather than investing for investment’s sake, they need to pay attention to the trend of economic digitization and promote the market efficiency and the expansion of market space.

Final analysis conclusion:

Promoting economic recovery and the development of the digital economy with new infrastructure are the keys to current macro policies. In this regard, local governments need to pay attention to the differences between the new infrastructure and the conventional infrastructure model, and they need to make corresponding adjustments in the investment model and development thinking so as to give full play to the efficiency of the digital economy.

*Wei Hongxu, graduated from the School of Mathematics of Peking University with a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Birmingham, UK in 2010 and is a researcher at Anbound Consulting, an independent think tank with headquarters in Beijing. Established in 1993, Anbound

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‘Business as unusual’: How COVID-19 could change the future of work

MD Staff

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Millions of people around the world have been working remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic and now experts are asking whether this “business as unusual” could be the future of work, at least for those people whose job doesn’t require them to be tied to a particular location.

UN News spoke to Susan Hayter, a Senior Technical Adviser on the Future of Work at the Geneva-based International Labour Organization, about how COVID-19 could change our working lives.

What are the longer-term effects of the pandemic on the workplace in developed countries, once the immediate crisis is over?
Before the pandemic, there was already a lot of discussion on the implications of technology for the future of work. The message was clear: the future of work is not pre-determined, it is up to us to shape it. 

However, that future has arrived sooner than anticipated as many countries, companies and workers shifted to remote working in order to contain the transmission of COVID-19, dramatically changing how we work. Remote virtual meetings are now commonplace and economic activity has increased on a range of digital platforms. 

As the restrictions are lifted, a question that is on everybody’s mind is whether this ‘business as unusual’ will become the ‘new normal’. A few large companies in developed economies have already said that what has been a large and unplanned pilot – remote teleworking – will become the standard way of organizing work. Employees need not commute to work again, unless they choose to do so.  

Is this a good thing?

This may indeed be cause to celebrate, for people and the planet. But the idea of an end to “The Office” is certainly overblown. The ILO estimates that in high-income countries 27 per cent of workers could work remotely from home. This does not mean that they will continue to work remotely. The question is how we can adapt work practices and reap the benefits of this experience with remote working – for employers and workers – while not losing the social and economic value of work as a place.   

In celebrating the innovations in work organization that have supported business continuity during the health crisis, we cannot forget that many will have lost their jobs or gone out of business as the pandemic has brought some industries to a standstill. For those returning to their place of work, the quality of work will be a key issue, in particular safe and healthy workplaces. 

What needs to happen next?

The degree of workers’ trust in the measures taken by employers to make workplaces safe, will no doubt have an impact on the return to work. Engagement with trade union representatives, where these exist, is a must. 

Everything from protocols for social distancing, monitoring and testing, and the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) need to be discussed to make this work. 

For workers in the gig economy, such as food delivery and ride-hailing workers, work is not a place, but an activity performed for an income. The pandemic has revealed the false choice between flexibility and income security. These workers may have no or inadequate access to sick leave and unemployment-insurance benefits. We need to tap into the brave new world to ensure that their work is performed under conditions that are safe. 

How different do you expect the workplace in developing countries to look?

The ILO estimates a 60 per cent decline in the earnings of the almost 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy in the first month of the crisis.  These workers are simply not able to work remotely and face the impossible choice of risking life or livelihood. Some countries have adopted measures to shore up this essential income while also ensuring adequate hygiene and PPE for employees and customers, informal enterprises and workers. 

As companies begin to evaluate the effectiveness of the shift to remote work and their ability to tackle data security concerns, new opportunities may open up in services for developing countries with the necessary infrastructure. 

However, these off-shoring opportunities in activities such as software development and engineering to financial services, may be accompanied by the reshoring in of other jobs as companies seek to improve inventory management and the predictability of supply chains. 

This will have longer-term effects on employment in developing and emerging economies. The challenge is that while it will take time for new service sectors to mature, the negative impact of rising unemployment will be felt immediately. Inequalities in digital readiness may further inhibit countries from seizing these opportunities. 

What are the benefits and drawbacks of remote work?

The shift to remote work has enabled many companies to continue to operate and ensure the health and safety of their employees. Those able to make the transition to remote work during the health crisis have had the opportunity to share meals with their families. Work has become human-centred to accommodate homeschooling and child and elder care.  

Yet, the lines between working time and private time have become blurred for these individuals, causing an increase in stress and exposure to mental health risks

In the face of a dramatic economic downturn caused by the pandemic and surging unemployment figures, there are opportunities to leverage these changes in work organization to design new job-sharing schemes that allow for flexibility and save jobs. This may mean shorter work weeks or work-sharing arrangements to avoid furloughs in lean times, while reshaping working time arrangements to achieve better work-life balance in the longer-term.

The digital transformation of work and possibility to engage in remote work has also been accompanied by other benefits. It has presented possibilities for older, more experienced workers to prolong their working life on their terms and provided work opportunities for those in rural communities. However, for many others, it has compounded a sense of isolation and a loss of identity and purpose. The social value of work and the dignity and belonging we derive from it cannot be replaced by virtual rooms, no matter how casual our attire while we occupy them. 

To what extent will the pandemic entrench rising inequality?

 While the pandemic may represent a tipping point for the digital transformation of the workplace, it has also revealed deep fault lines. It is those in the upper income brackets who are the most likely to choose to work remotely, whereas those in the lowest have no choice; they will have to commute and are more likely to be time-poor as a result. 

Looking to the future, as digital and online work becomes the new normal, the demand for skilled workers is likely to rise along with their wages. The contributions of care-workers and other workers (e.g. teachers and staff in grocery stores) will be more highly valued than before. Yet, many low-paid workers whose wages have been stagnating in the face of declining union power and a shifting employment relationship are likely to see their incomes eroded even further as the ranks of the unemployed increase. 

Historically, economic shocks, pandemics and wars have exacerbated inequality. The remaining question is whether this one will be a tectonic shift with rising political and social instability, or a shock that leads us to reinforce the foundations of just societies and the principles of solidarity and democratic decision-making that move societies, labour markets and workplaces in the direction of equality. 

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A post-COVID recovery presents significant challenges for the French economy

Kareem Salem

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As France tentatively eases its lockdown measures, the French government is faced with dealing with an unprecedented economic crisis.

The curb in economic activity during the coronavirus pandemic has considerably strained the second biggest economy of the eurozone. During the first economic quarter, the French economy plunged by 5.8% – which factored only one month of confinement where 67 million people were ordered to stay at home.

The resultant health security measures required the French government to act swiftly to prevent redundancies, by launching a partial unemployment scheme ‘chômage partiel’, under which fixed-term workers received partial unemployment benefits from the French government. Public aid was also granted to small businesses to prevent them from going bankrupt during this uncertain period.

Whilst these measures have prevented significant job losses during the confinement, the easing of restrictions now requires the French government to stimulate the economy. Economic activity figures are expected to continue to decline in the second quarter and real GDP is expected to drop by 8% overall this year.

Since the relaxation of the lockdown measures, only non-essential enterprises that can guarantee social distancing practices have been allowed to resume their business activities. The tourism sector, which accounts for8% of national wealth and 2 million jobs, has received 18 billion euros in rescue funds in response to the remaining closure of hotels, restaurants and cafes.

Yet, there are also other strategic sectors that urgently require government support. These sectors include entities operating in the automotive, aerospace and retail sectors. Well-Known French car manufacturers such as the Peugeot group and Renault, have seen their business operations severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic since the lockdown of Wuhan, where their assembly plants are located. Subsequent health restriction measures taken by the French government have also led to a significant 84% decline in their operating sales results due to the closure of car dealerships during this period. 

The standstill of the airline industry has inevitably affected the financial stability of aircraft manufacturers and their supply chains in France. Falling sales have led Airbus to reduce the production capacity of its Toulouse manufacturing plant by and is expected to increase further by June, which will inexorably affect the financial stability of their suppliers. The halt in air traffic is expected to result in the loss of 26000 jobs for Airbus and 85000 for its subcontractors in the Occitanie region.

In the retail sector, entities that were in difficulty before the health restriction measures, also saw their financial situation considerably impeded. Between March and May, the retailer La Halle incurred a loss of 106 million euros in sales. Other prominent retailers, notably NAF NAF, which employs 1170 people and owns 160 stores, has been placed under judicial rehabilitation proceedings – redressement judiciaire.

The precarious predicament of certain sectors requires the French government to intervene to prevent greater financial strain mounting in key strategic sectors. The Minister of Economy and Finance has specified his intention to establish a recovery support package for the automotive and aerospace sector in the coming weeks.

The challenge for Bercy is straightforward – ensure that the recovery package meets the needs of both sectors. This is important considering that the automotive sector accounts for 36%of government revenue while the aerospace sector accounts for 12% of French exports of goods. This inevitably requires Bercy to ensure that stimulus packages for both sectors cover employee job security and the freezing of production taxes for aircraft and car manufacturers in order to alleviate their financial strain. This is particularly important for manufacturers in the aerospace sector, which will continue to be affected by the slow and progressive return of air travel.

The post-pandemic period also requires automobile manufacturers and retail sector entities to restructure their business strategy to regain the competitiveness lost during the confinement. The loss in business activity from the lockdown necessitates entities in these sectors most in difficulty, to extend their working hours and limit the number of vacation days in order to produce new wealth, which will enable them to mitigate the economic losses incurred during the confinement. The production of greater wealth will enable the French State to increase its tax base and thus revenues and repay more rapidly the debt accumulated during the pandemic.

As France tentatively moves out of confinement, it is also important for Bercy to encourage consumers to support French manufacturing entities. It is apparent during the eight weeks of confinement, households saved tens of billions of euros. In this perspective, positive deconfinement results coupled with the ease in lockdown measures will gradually rehabilitate consumer confidence. Providing economic incentives for low-income earners is also necessary to encourage them to purchase a new car, which will help boost the sales growth of car manufacturers.

Recovery also requires the collective support of EU member states. Paris and Berlin are seeking to push forward a 500 billion eurosrecovery fund, in which the European Commission will borrow on the financial markets in order to disperse the recovery funds through grants to European economies hit hardest by the pandemic.Its repayment would be the financial responsibility of the entire block.

Yet the naysayer countries Austria, Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, have instantly rejected the idea of greater fiscal integration. The four’s main concernis the plan of Paris and Berlin to propose grants instead of loans. The challenge for Macron and Merkel is to convey to their European partners that this mechanism is important for Europe to recover less painfully from the pandemic and to shield off anti-European and populist sentiment, especially in the block’s southern countries.

For Bercy, the European solidarity fund will provide much-needed respite for French public finances, which have been significantly strained by the chômage partiel provision, which amountsto26 billion euros.

All in all, while the COVID-19 pandemic poses major challenges for the French economy, support of the French government and European collective action, combined with an overhaul of corporate strategy, will enable Europe’s second largest economy to recover from the crisis more rapidly.

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