The tensions underlying international exchange are indicative of the importance of cultural factors in economic warfare and oblige companies to be aware of the scientific progress if they intend to continue developing.
It took France a long time to define a culture of its own in the field of intelligence, and until the previous century, the French word renseignement had a negative connotation. The political elite considered this activity to be degrading and comparable to dirty police work.
The French government felt the need to launch certain reforms in both its external and internal services only after the First Gulf War, thanks also to constructive political consensus. This reform process focused on security that did not give due consideration to the decisive role that finance and markets have come to assume today in determining a people’s and a nation’s future, in an offensive context in which Western countries are not the only protagonists.
The main concerns of the French political elite regarded the use of renseignement in increasing the nation’s power and the ways that the offensive practices, typical of the information warfare, could be used while maintaining respect for the rules of democracy.
The management of conflicts linked to information has now become more complex due to the lack of strategies capable of managing and controlling virtual markets, the immaterial world represented by Internet, and the presence of new weapons capable of influencing public opinion.
With his interdisciplinary point of view, Christian Harbulot offers a reflection to understand the nature of the relations of power existing between national economies by juxtaposing strictly economic factors with historical, geopolitical, or cultural factors that affect economic warfare.
The reason why the elite were so unable to formulate a clear doctrine in this regard is perhaps due to previous historical factors. For three times in little less than a century – in 1815 with the succession of King Louis the 18th to Napoleon, in 1870, with the support of Bismarck against the Paris Commune, and in 1940, with the collaboration between Pétain and Nazi Germany – a national force interested in taking power created an alliance with a country that had defeated France on the military level. This contributed to the beginning of a certain wariness in public opinion of patriotism, which became devoid of substance when the enemy was presented as an indispensable ally. The Colonial Wars and the Cold War, with their ideological view of power as an act of domination and the substitution of national idealism by solidarity for struggling peoples, reduced the dimensions of patriotism to a minimum. The Cold War imposed ideology as the dominant key to the reading of events and the unity of the Western world assumed top priority against the threat from the Soviets, thus re-dimensioning the balance of power between the economies of the Western nations.
Only the arrival of General De Gaulle at the head of the fifth Republic produced an attempt at redefining the challenge posed by relations based on power in an economic perspective.
General De Gaulle tried to ensure a homogenous approach to the strategy of power and a better positioning of France on the international scene in 1958, but encountered great difficulty in having this approach accepted by civil society. He proposed an alternative to the Cold War based on an equilibrium between East and West and a conciliation between the world’s North and South, but this attempt at compromise failed, due to the lack of international support (the United States opposed this pursuit of strategic autonomy) and also the scarce interest shown by the French elite.
De Gaulle had a wide and articulated vision of France’s power also on the economic level, with its positive foreign trade balance; on the military level, with the advantages derived from the growth of its power; on the diplomatic level, with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The main concern in managing the territory was the modernization of the infrastructure to attract foreign investment.
This one-way vision did not permit the assessment of the intentions of these foreign investors or the drawing of a balance of failures or unfair business practices.
If the existence of the USSR served the purpose of uniting the Western world, its demise as an ideological empire and potential nemesis restored the previous relations of power between nations – in other words, the pursuit of supremacy over markets and resources and the creation of long-lasting relationships of dependence.
The evolution of the international situation continued demonstrating the exacerbation of the balance of economic power between the dominant nations on the international scene and in the areas contested for energy and mining resources.
After De Gaulle, no reflection on the growth of power ever completed the defensive approach conceived in the wake of the Second World War.
History shows, however, that up until the Restoration, the elite had had a clear perception of the contribution made by the economy in the growth of a nation’s power, the symbol of which was the model of development based on trade adopted by the United Kingdom. The clarity of French vision about the reality of the relationships between economic forces faded after 1815 when the resistance structure applied by Napoleon to contrast Britain’s commercial offensive was dismantled. London’s strategy of influence based on the propaganda of free trade bore fruits with the rise to power of the future Napoleon the 3rd,: he would sign the free trade agreement with England in 1860 despite opposition from French industrialists. Liberalism as the fundamental basis of the market economy came to replace a realistic vision of the balance of economic power for nearly a century afterwards.
This tendency for the conceptualization of economic warfare during peacetime has legitimized the numerous works created since 1997 by the Paris School of Economic War. Furthermore, by the end of 1988, the continuing lack of competence in the matter of France led Thierry Gaudin, Director of the Ministry of Research’s Prospects and Evaluation (CPE) and Jean-Pierre Quignaux, Secretary General of the Association for the Diffusion of Technological Information (ADITECH) to fund a study on economic warfare at a time when the international economic situation fully warranted its legitimacy.
Harbulot decided to publish Techniques offensives et guerre économique for the first time at the end of 1988, when all the international analyses existed in the conceptual shelter of the Berlin Wall, and talking about economic warfare seemed like an abuse of language. The Wall that had delayed the spread of new technology in the industrial fabric succeeded in disguising the history of certain peoples, the rootedness of their cultures and their national peculiarities for more than thirty years. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the binocular vision of our world was abruptly clouded over. Its geopolitics and the analysis of its economic clashes had to be reconsidered, and it is from this point of view that the retrospective assessment of Christian Harbulot assumes particular significance, with its emphasis on the need for a resumption of research in this field in order to evaluate the consequences of current events and permit a reading of the future sufficient to prevent certain events from occurring.
Harbulot urges to become aware of the threat: in the international market, with competition in every direction, no one can afford the luxury of fighting a war of reaction.
Yet even in France, Harbulot claims, a certain desire for non-aggressive competition still prevails that is certainly not favorable in terms of competitiveness or creating jobs, due also to the mostly verbal and improvised ways in which awareness of economic warfare is transmitted.
The globalization of exchange is changing the very nature of economic warfare. This new state of affairs gives intelligence culture an extraordinary strategic importance, even more so in light of the fact that information is a capital with a long-term return. In addition to being a production factor, it is also an offensive and dissuasive weapon, and the absence of information engineering has become a strategic problem at the level of SMI. Even if, as Harbulot explained, this weakness in regard to foreign competition is not necessarily synonymous with defeat, the French companies’ ability to take action remained insufficient for a long time.
The opening of national markets to foreign exchange has multiplied the difficulty in interpreting phenomena related to competitors and competitiveness. Faced with this revolution in the world market, the approach adopted by French companies remains one of merely “sailing by sight” that has no place in a dynamic national industrial policy.
Active economic aggression measures are a source of concern primarily for the strategic sectors of armament or atomic energy, whereas most other economic actors perceive this type of risk too passively.
Proposals for action in the Martre Report: the third way for French industrial policy
The expression “economic intelligence” officially entered the public debate on national competiveness together with the request for public intervention in regard between 1992 and 1994.
Merit must go to Jean-Louis Levet, Chief of the technological and industrial development service at the Plan’s General Commissariat since 1992 for the possibility to transform the thoughts of Harbulot and Baumard into an official Report. He was convinced on one hand of the need for a radical review of the relationship between the State and industry allowing to seize the new opportunities offered by technological evolution and globalization and on the other of the need for France to implement a new policy of offensive competition on three fronts: the use of natural resources; the use of new strategies for new forms of protectionism, and new ways for the State to intervene in the economy, all of which in the context of a concerted long-term strategy.
Harbulot and Baumard defined the issues to be addressed:
-reflections on the way to encourage economic intelligence at company level;
-the study of foreign economic intelligence systems;
-the development of written knowledge on economic intelligence;
-the development of educational content addressed to higher level university professors and the encouragement of the sharing of experiences between operators in the sector;
-lastly, the launching of a national reflection by public administrations utilizing governmental economic intelligence measures.
The collaboration between Harbulot and Baumard resulted in a joint effort in defining the major working areas for the Plan’s work group, with an objective of methodological nature, namely, uniting the disciplines of information engineering and political nature, or in other words, remedying the absence of a French economic intelligence structure.
Furthermore, the integration of Harbulot into the Plan’s various work groups enabled the reinforcement of ADITECH, which if up until then had been a mere association, since then became the ADIT (Technological Information Diffusion Agency) through Ministerial Decree in May, 1992, under the control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Aerospace and Research Ministry.
In the context of the Report, under the leadership of Henry Martre, a previous Chief Executive Officer for Armament, a work group specifically dedicated to questions of economic intelligence was set up: Baumard would work with Harbulot, the former on the comparative analysis of the world’s economic intelligence systems, the latter on national reflection on the issue.
The Report, which was published in 1994 in La Documentation Française, documented the degree to which French companies were obliged to operate under increasingly more complex circumstances and unpredictable dynamics that demanded the implementation of economic intelligence systems capable of further developing the strategic management of information, economic potential, and the number of jobs. The Report reiterated the meaning of economic intelligence intended as the coordinated research, processing and distribution of information, which can be useful to economic actors. These actions need to be conducted with guarantees of the protection necessary for the preservation of the nation’s business assets in the best conditions of quality, terms, and costs
It was through the work of Harbulot that the term and the definition of economic intelligence first appeared in an official document.
The Report clearly shows Harbulot’s vision: describing economic intelligence as an activity, not another type of information, involving the leading economic players, the companies.
The sources remain open, disproving the argument that paints economic intelligence as being involved in actions at the limits of legality.
However, it is precisely in regard to the greater availability of open sources that certain problems linked to economic intelligence emerge, such as the data distribution and protection: the circulation of data inside the company assumes fundamental importance whenever it transforms into a news leak, a constantly increasing risk in today’s ever more interconnected world.
The Report urged the State to take rapid action, and provided four embracing proposals:
-Involving companies in the practise of economic intelligence
-optimizing the flows of information between the public and private sectors;
-the creation of databases;
-getting the world of education and training involved.
The Report is permeated with the awareness that the problem is primarily political and that reasoning through the dictates of economic intelligence means changing our ways of perceiving the economy:
“Economic intelligence, together with the intention to impose an enlarged horizon of comprehension including companies, agencies and nations, provides a response to the urgent need of understanding the economy in other terms than those of mere and overly simplistic competitiveness. The question is political and requires the directors of the organizations above to enter into awareness because it regards a view of the economy that is not neutral”.
The Report issued by the group led by Henry Martre developed a summary of the thought of C. Harbulot and P. Baumard and provided keys to the comprehension of the world. It gave official form to a particular description of the relations between states on the international panorama in which the latter compete with no legal holds barred: the end justifies the means, and above all else, justifies the marshalling of actions in favour of the economy by intelligence services.
Conceived in terms of systems, networks of protagonists, intentions, and influence, and the coordination of decision-making centres, this view gains leverage from the fears derived from the invisibility of the threats. The central position of the State, the guarantor of national cohesion, is confirmed, as is the accent on the importance of unity and national cohesion, taking Japan and Sweden as examples. France can take control of its future only in a collective perspective, therefore must remedy the absence of interaction between the public and private sectors and overcome the usual priority given to maintaining a defensive position, with the objective of mobilizing the political class in regard to the importance of controlling and using information as an arm of domination.
Harbulot accuses both France to be unprepared for “economic warfare” and its policies to continue believing that a united Europe would provide a fertile field for French economic patriotism.
Harbulot defined economic patriotism as a three-dimensional value system, consisting of a cultural dimension that looks to the roots of the productive system; a dimension of conflict based on the relationships between the competing forces, and a temporal dimension influenced by the evolution of technological progress.
In order to promote the passage from an information culture that is closed and individual to one that is open and collective, he suggested creating an economic intelligence instrument through the concerted effort of public and private parties.
For Harbulot, economic intelligence is the systematic search and interpretation of the information available to everyone for the purpose of understanding the intentions and capabilities of the protagonists. Economic intelligence incorporates all the capacity of surveillance of the competitive environment (protection, vigilance, influence) and is distinguished from traditional intelligence by the nature of its field of application (open information), the nature of its actors (inserted in a collective information culture context), and its cultural specificities (each nation’s economy generates its own specific model of economic intelligence). This is represented by means of an economic intelligence diagram with three levels: the companies, the nation, and the world.
Overall, the Report would be judged faint-hearted in the measures it proposed, but more innovative in the vocabulary it employed, by officially introducing, in fact, both the new term “economic intelligence” and a different vision of reality, with the objective of generating a shift in mentality that justified the urgent implementation of a government action plan.
The proposed scope of the Report was the improvement of the offensive and defensive capacities of both national and corporate economic intelligence.
For the purpose of providing these recommendations with a follow-up, Martre promoted the creation of the Comité pour la Compétitivité et la Sécurité Economique (Economic Competitiveness and Security Committee) in 1995 with tasks similar to those of the US National Economic Council. The establishment of the CCSE significantly empowered French economic intelligence, which could already vaunt the fact of having promptly supplied the French government with news regarding the abandoning of the gold standard and the devaluation of the dollar received from US Treasury Department sources at the start of the Seventies. Furthermore, being characterized by close cooperation and trust between the public and private sectors, French economic intelligence also has a highly centralized structure that enables quick reaction times and a noteworthy ease in acquiring confidential information.
The system’s flexibility is achieved through the involvement in the “Economic intelligence structure” at territorial levels.
C. Harbulot was, together with P. Baumard, one of the protagonists between 1990 and 1992 of the construction of French economic intelligence, supported in his conviction that the international context would play a determinant role in the creation of new relationships between the State and businesses business. The discussions about security – promoted on the other side of the Atlantic – along with the political and economic uncertainties linked to the building process of the EU, had already prepared the ground for change.
Christian Harbulot and the creation of “Economic Intelligence”
Christian Harbulot was the first French author to address the topic of economic intelligence, presenting ideas that sparked the debate on its importance, given that the gaining of consciousness of the changes on the international scene could no longer be postponed, and recognizing the priority of economic questions over military ones.
The writings of C. Harbulot are authentic essays on the nature of economic confrontation written with the objective of convincing the political elite that an offensive use of information is a key factor in ensuring a Nation’s success.
Through comparative cultural analysis, Harbulot explained why certain peoples had mobilized and addressed the conflictual aspects of the market economy while others had not, and advanced his reasoning by which information capital is at the same time a leading factor in production but also an offensive weapon, in addition to being an arm of dissuasion.
Harbulot demonstrated how Japan’s economy was further ahead than America’s, and naturally France’s, precisely because it was capable of exploiting all the potential of intelligence activity in the sector. The United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, France, and Japan developed their own cultural model of market economy. In particular, Harbulot believed that Germany and Japan had gained remarkable economic leverage from their information and intelligence assets and had implemented more offensive and more effective economic policies because they were based on concerted strategies between private or public companies, between administrations and bank networks. Businesses in these two countries optimized their profitability by reducing the gap between information and intelligence, between open practices and closed practices, between what is available to the entire world and what instead must remain secret, moving from information – the mere awareness of information – to action, or rather information that can be useful for intelligence.
Harbulot often accused French political power of not giving the right amount of importance to “economic warfare”, thus remaining vulnerable to the risk of losing the control of its own economic information independence when faced with the massive growth of the Asian economies, all of which are – as opposed to those in the West – founded on unspoken rules of economic warfare.
For France, instead, the complete ignorance of the offensive potential of information engineering would be the cause of the scarce competitiveness of its companies.
Furthermore, the concept of “economic defence” – intended solely in a military perspective – is equally invalid.
This can be summarized by quoting Luttwak:
A nation’s cohesion is no longer born from the fear of a military threat but an economic threat instead, in a context in which the importance given to military alliances decreases and geo-economic priorities prevail instead.
In short, the elite in power in France still needed to be convinced of the existence and the importance of “economic warfare”.
The term “economic warfare” appeared too strong and radical right from the start, especially when used by authors like Bernard Esambert, who compared a nation’s loss of jobs and wealth and the lowering of its standard of living tout court to the disasters of war. Yet for this author, as well as Harbulot, the underlying idea is that a nation’s economic success is based on the concept of “culture” considered as a weapon that some nations use better than others: Japan’s economic dynamism can be explained by the strength of its cultural power, as might be Germany’s economic power as well. The French economy was playing a defensive game, instead.
However, the vocabulary suggested by Harbulot and terms regarding concepts like “combat culture”, “economic confrontation” and “economic warfare” were seen as scarcely convincing and overly radical. Thanks to the work conducted together with Philippe Baumard, the terms “confrontation” and “warfare” were replaced with that of “intelligence”. The use of the term intelligence derived from a combination of the French definitions of “surveillance” and “veille” and the Anglo-Saxon and Swedish definitions of the concept of intelligence intended as reasoning, planning, and ability to establish relations between various elements, or more simply, active information gathering activities. However, the term economic intelligence invokes an entirely new category in the field of economic geopolitics that expresses new needs for cooperation between the public and private sector.
P. Baumard proposed a methodology for the creation of a business intelligence system before constructing together with Harbulot a common reading of the stakes at risk linked to the new forms of competition based on offensive approaches to information. The ideas of Harbulot that were given most credence and which best describe the French situation are based on the use of subversive cultural elements in economic warfare.
The analyses of Philippe Baumard are very similar to those of Harbulot, especially concerning changes in terminology: from the concept of “surveillance of the environment”, “intelligence” came to signify the “intelligence of the environment” reflecting the prospect of greater tactical and strategic interaction of information.
Various other authors have considered the ambiguity of the term intelligence. The British give it a wider range of significance than the Americans did, for one thing. To make matters worse, difficulties in translation contribute to the confusion. The French word “intelligence”, for example, refers nearly exclusively to a human faculty, the intelligence of an individual, but not the activity of by which a government agency or a private company collects information. The French word renseignement is applied to the activities of national security agencies and not those of private companies or a particular social group: it expresses the product, the information that was collected in the environment, and makes tacit reference to the secret services.
Philippe Baumard focused his work on semantic problems and the difficulties of understanding and using the term in France in regard to the terms “veille” and “renseignment”. Baumard would attempt to renew the image of “vigilance” and “surveillance” in the perception of companies by exploiting the Anglo-Saxon concept of intelligence. However, his meeting with C. Harbulot – whom he even criticized for his use of the French term renseignment, declaring his preference for intelligence, as well as for the expression “intelligence économique” which he preferred to indicate with “economic confrontation” – would lead to the integration of the expression “intelligence économique” in the debate on the adaptation of public actions in regard to the problems posed by the management of information in 1992.
In this way, both style and terminology would become more moderate and closer to the vocabulary used by government administrations.
The progressive development of semantics for the topic contributed to a comprehension of the facts that was more appropriate to the changing times. The function of “vigilance” was very useful to the French contributors, and enabled the shift to the successive concept of economic intelligence intended as information assessed, interpreted, and put to use, also in terms of offence, by companies.
P. Baumard underlined the progress made by the United States in the topic in many ways: with an intense proliferation of texts, with an American economic intelligence community structured around the former members of intelligence services working together in the SCIP association, and with the renewed interest being taken by universities on this issue and journalists who make less confusion between “business intelligence” and spying. In France as well, the reasoning advanced by C. Harbulot proved to be decisive in the implementation of plans for action that would be submitted at the highest levels of government.
Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and India
Regional or bilateral free trade agreements between India and other countries/institutions have always faced local resistance because of intrinsic anxiety that low cost imported goods would stifle the growth of domestic industry. Commentators have justified this apprehension advocating that domestic industry in India is still unprepared for international competition, and there are no state subsidies that the government provides to the industry for reducing costs and facilitating unfair cost advantage with regard to exports. Within India, sector specific associations are powerful and a result of which many items such as tea, palm oil, coffee and pepper were enlisted as highly sensitive list items (very less reduction in tariffs) when India-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement was signed in 2009. India is witnessing a very high percentage of growth in services sector (contributes nearly two-thirds of India’s GDP)and therefore has always sought to offset the negative balance of merchandise trade with promotion of services sector and investment as an integral component of bilateral or multilateral trade talks.
RCEP is proposed to be one free trade area which will include 3.4 billion people across the East Asian and Oceania region, with a GDP of more than US $22 trillion and the intra RCEP trade would account for more than 30 percent of global trade, as it would integrate the three largest economies of Asia-China, Japan and India. For India, accession to this economic trading bloc would mean opening its large market of 1.25 billion people for the products from 15 countries including 10 ASEAN members and the five dialogue partner countries -China, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Korea. During the last few meetings of RCEP negotiations, India has made it very clear that it would not compromise on issues related to trade in services and also addressing concerns related to the small and medium enterprises in the negotiations.
As discussed, RCEP is expected to bring the ASEAN countries and its six dialogue partners under one large geographic and economic landmass which would be one of the largest economic blocs in the world. India has Free Trade agreements or Comprehensive Economic Cooperation/ Partnership Agreements (CECA/CEPA) with Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Korea while it is negotiating terms of bilateral free trade along with services agreement with Australia, and New Zealand. India has proposed to include services sector into the larger negotiation process while many countries do not want to open their market for highly talented and qualified professionals from India. The bone of contention in this regard is Mode IV which ‘deals with movement of natural persons who are service providers or independent professionals’ to another WTO member country. India has pressed for the Mode IV negotiations while negotiating with Malaysia and Singapore. However, both the countries have only opened Mode IV for select individuals such as consultants, accountants, nurses and financial experts. The limited access to the emerging markets have annoyed Indian negotiators to such an extent that at one time India decided not to enter into any free trade negotiations without including services and investment in the negotiation blueprint.
India started economic liberalization process in early 1992, it is yet to integrate with the global economy given the intrinsic problems with regard to tariff structures, customs procedures and the inherent red tape which was a legacy of the license regime. However, putting onus on India for failed attempts with regard to free trade and better terms of trade with other countries across Asia would be unfair. India has not gained the promised advantage while trading with the price competitive economies of the Asian region. On the contrary, the low cost production centres, particularly China, which thrives on state subsidized production has easy access to the India market while it has not bestowed the same privileges to Indian exports. The tariff and non-tariff barriers in China are still not conducive to Indian exports leading to skewed balance of trade. Taking cue from China’s re-routing of its products through ASEAN nations, India has stressed on the stringently following the Rules of Origin (ROO) template with 35 percent of local value addition as a necessary prerequisite.
This year, in the post Wuhan summit bonhomie, Chinese government has opened its pharmaceutical market to select Indian drugs such as anti-cancer, and other lifesaving drugs which are relatively cheaper than Western imports. Overall China has removed import duties on 28 medicines imported from India. The trade frictions between India and China still exists as India has registered a number of anti-dumping and unfair trade practices case in WTO against China. Indian industry particularly Small and Medium Enterprises(SMEs) however accept the fact that cheap Chinese input material in sectors such as steel, pharma and other related industries have brought down the costs, and have also indirectly helped in real estate, automobile spares, and textile sectors. Nonetheless, larger industrial houses are not in favour of such opening up of market as they feel their future endeavors would be jeopardized if Chinese cheap products both in terms of raw materials and semi-finished products would curtail their market expansion plans through new products. These large industrial houses do control the Indian politics through their corporate funds given to various political parties to fight elections and have a sizeable influence among the country’s parliamentarians and legislators. SME sector in India is relatively unorganized, both in terms of associations and political clout.
In order to increase its trade with countries in East Asia and Oceania, India has been trying to adopt international production methods, and be a part of the Regional Value Chain(RVC). However, India’s incremental approach for market liberalization and other market facilitation efforts have not met with active engagement from the regional community. India has not yet been inducted into the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) which could have prepared the country for business standardization and harmonization of tariffs as per the APEC provisions. This would have created the base for effective implementation of the RCEP trade provisions with necessary structural support. Indian economists have made it very clear that only market access to merchandise trade without any quid pro quo would not be acceptable to the Indian entrepreneurs. It might also create social problems given the fact that Chinese cheap products have already decimated electronics, mobile, toys and silk industry in India. The cascading effect has left very large number of both skilled and unskilled labour jobless. Given the fact that select sectors in India are still labour intensive, retrenchment of workers has a political cost. There are apprehensions projected by industry associations that cheap imports would adversely impact the steel, chemicals, textiles, copper, aluminum, and pharma industry. India is has a sizeable share of global trade in automotive parts, pharma and textile industry, and so negotiations would be a long drawn affair. Further, strategic experts feel that India must not become an ancillary industry to Chinese production network as it would jeopardize India’s rise in future as a production and skill center in Asia. Also, it will put China as the benefactor of India’s industrial change which might not be palatable to the political class.
Indian negotiators still believe that until and unless the demands with regard to trade in services, investment and also concerns related to SMEs is addressed, the RCEP would be facing an invisible deadlock. Opening up services sector would help the Indian economy and partly offset the effect that would be felt from the cheap products from relatively cheaper production and export centres. Indian economy still faces stiff competition from China and as a result of this the negotiations with China, would be long drawn affairs. However, there is still a silver lining that RCEP would be concluded in 2019 but the deadline from the Indian side would be after the general elections in 2019 when the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be looking for a second term to bring about comprehensive set of economic and financial reforms. In case a coalition government comes into power, it would seriously jeopardize the RCEP negotiations because then the different associations and lobbies would be playing the political game to protect their economic interests.
‘America First’ vs. Global Financial Stability
The recently concluded annual meeting of the IMF and World Bank group, held in Indonesia last weekend, has highlighted a series of concerning trends with regard to the global economy. It has subsequently left many considering the impacts of a possible global recession that may be looming ahead in the next of couple of years to come. These fears were evident in the worldwide sell-off in global equities last Thursday that has been widely attributed to the IMF revising down its global growth forecast in its World Economic Outlook (WEO) report. The report highlighted growth in a number of developed economies as having plateaued, with rising trade tensions and policy uncertainty greatly contributing to the slow-down. This includes the ongoing trade war between the US and China, as well as the numerous uncertainties pervading within the Euro-Zone.
All of this has had a significant knock-on effect on emerging markets, including Pakistan which has already been struggling with massive fiscal and current account deficits amid rampant inflationary pressures. With tensions between the United States and China still on the rise, Pakistan presents a notable example of how deteriorating global macro-economic conditions have been exacerbated by rising geo-political tensions between these two global powers.
For instance, it took Imran Khan’s fledgling government months to accept the reality of another IMF bailout (Pakistan’s 13th in the last 30 years) despite its $68 billion investment commitment with China. This is because the US, being the largest contributor of funds to the IMF has increasingly politicized this bailout in light of its own deteriorating relations with China. In fact, the US has directly blamed China for Pakistan’s recent debt woes referring to what has been come to known as China’s ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy’. The argument being that the massive loans being doled out by China to developing countries under its Belt & Road Initiative are leading to unsustainable debt levels, eroding their sovereignty while expanding China’s hold over them. Pakistan’s loan obligations to China as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor are presented as a case in point.
Despite both Pakistan’s and China’s protests to the contrary, it is widely expected that some of the IMF’s conditions attached to Pakistan’s requested bailout are thus likely to include greater scrutiny and revisions regarding the CPEC initiative. This is likely to form part of the US’s overall objective of limiting and constraining China’s influence over Pakistan and the wider region. The impact this would have on Pakistan however is likely to prove critical considering its precarious economic as well as geo-political position. Not only would the IMF’s conditions limit the new government’s ability to maneuver its economy around an increasingly unstable world financial system; it would also delay the much needed infrastructure projects being planned and implemented under CPEC with Chinese assistance. Therefore, the very purpose of the IMF bailout which is to provide some semblance of stability to Pakistan’s ailing economy, would embroil it deeper in uncertainty as a direct result of the US’s unilateral push against China.
It is worth noting here that during its annual meeting, the IMF clearly voiced its concerns regarding escalating trade tensions between the US and China. While calling for increased dialogue and a careful examination of debt induced risks across the world, the IMF seems to be warning both sides over the fragility of prevailing global economic conditions. At the same meeting, China too echoed these concerns and called for increased dialogue with the US to promote open trade and growth. As a country that has for the last few decades championed globalization, China’s vision of shared global growth and win-win partnerships in emerging markets such as Pakistan, have however been directly challenged by the US. A US, that is in contrast aggressively willing to defend the prevailing status quo, as part of President Trump’s mantra of ‘America First’. Hence it was no surprise that US representatives, in response to these concerns brought up by the IMF and China, have continued to downplay the risks of their policies on global economic stability.
With respect to China and numerous emerging markets such as Pakistan, the fact still remains that the world financial system is currently replete with risks and uncertainty as a direct result of US policy. All of this is occurring while the US President continues to boast about surging US equities and record employment figures as a direct outcome of these policies. While the US economy has experienced sustained growth since the 2008 financial crisis, markets and business cycles have a way of correcting themselves, especially when world leaders themselves point to overbought and overextended conditions.
If the US economy truly is on the cusp of a potential downturn, then present geo-political tensions are more than likely to exacerbate the impacts of an impending global recession. For Pakistan, with its precariously low foreign currency reserves and an unsustainable debt to GDP ratio, such a recession is likely to bring on even bigger problems than any of the potential cuts the IMF may propose on CPEC. Thus, while the US may limit China’s rise as an economic power in the short-term, it does so at the expense of emerging markets and global economic stability in the long-run. This lack of foresight is likely to hurt the US more as it realizes how economies cannot exist within a vacuum in an increasingly interdependent world.
How to finance Asia’s infrastructure gap
Asia’s countries famously need to invest trillions of dollars a year to provide infrastructure required to keep traffic flowing, ports trading, and factories humming. Yet most countries in the region consistently fall short.
The 2017 Asian Development Bank (ADB) report “Meeting Asia’s Infrastructure Needs” puts the infrastructure tab for 45 developing Asian countries at more than US$1.7 trillion per year. Developing Asia now invests only about $881 billion a year, or slightly more than 50 percent of that. This is the infrastructure gap.
Less well known, however, is that the investment shortfall is frequently not for a lack of funds or technology. The money may be available, particularly in the private sector, but not enough of it is going where Asia needs it. And this is because many developing countries lack the knowledge and capacity to design and implement bankable infrastructure projects that integrate new technologies.
To encourage private sector investment in infrastructure, high-quality bankable projects must adopt current levels of proven technology as well as be “future-proofed” to further advances in technology.
Delegates from across the development spectrum — from government through the private sector — will gather on Oct.13 in Bali for the Global Infrastructure Forum 2018 to discuss several trillion-dollar questions. How can governments and the private sector help fill the infrastructure gap? How can authorities’ better pair the world’s big investors with the many inclusive, resilient, sustainable, and technology-driven infrastructure projects this region needs to advance economic progress? And how can multilateral development banks best help?
To be sure, strong infrastructure projects are going up all over Asia. Take Indonesia, the Forum host; the country has made enormous strides under its ongoing and ambitious infrastructure program.
The country has seen progress: from the trans-Papua road project in one of the country’s most remote and underdeveloped regions to better information and communications technology under the Palapa Ring (satellite) Project. Indonesia has also launched innovative and clean energy projects such as the 72-megawatt Tolo wind-farm in South Sulawesi and massive urban infrastructure to boost Jakarta’s livability and competitiveness. This latter project includes a new modern airport terminal, rail link, and the first phase of the mass rapid transit expected to open in 2019.
Knowledge is crucial to get such projects off the ground, and this is where the multilateral development banks, including ADB, can assist.
The development banks are providing governments financial and technical support to enhance knowledge in numerous areas.
ADB is also helping strengthen government and private sector project development and governance capacity, for instance, for preparing high-quality projects able to support private finance. It also established the Asia Pacific Project Preparation Facility, a $73 million multi-donor trust fund to support project preparation, monitoring, and project restructuring, as well as capacity building and policy-reform initiatives linked to specific projects.
In addition, the organization is promoting public-private partnerships, catalyzing regulatory reforms to make infrastructure more attractive to private investors, and encourage more bankable projects. Potential is vast, in that pension funds alone, which hold $7.8 trillion in assets, are estimated to invest only about 1 percent of funds under management in infrastructure.
A recent ADB report, “Closing the Financing Gap in Asian Infrastructure,” notes that the richer Asian economies, such as Japan — where savings rates top 30 percent — can clearly play a stronger role if it only could. Yet, the country still invests almost $4 trillion in portfolio assets outside Asia.
Likewise, ADB is developing alternative financing structures and is backing green finance to encourage a bankable green finance project pipeline that can access funds from commercial and institutional investors. Many major investors are now strictly subject to environmental, social, and governance requirements in their investment decisions.
Finally, as technology rapidly evolves, particularly digital, it is creating substantial opportunity. Land acquisition, for example, significantly delays infrastructure projects across the region. Digital technologies are therefore being tested in several countries and watched closely for an ability to improve land titling. Likewise, ADB is involved in Spatial Data Analysis Explorer to help in decision-making relevant to climate hazards and resilience across urban systems.
Multilateral development banks can play multiple roles, from assisting and advising on the creation of appropriate legal and regulatory frameworks, developing bankable projects, direct financing or providing credit enhancement tools to finance projects, to structuring innovative “blended finance” solutions in circumstances where the underlying project is incapable of supporting a financing structure priced at commercial funding rates. In all of this, multilateral development banks and other development partners can assist developing countries gain the knowledge to better develop sustainable, accessible, resilient, and quality infrastructure.
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