Debt-trap diplomacy is a fallacy

Authors: Zhao Qingtong and Paul Wang

To certain extent, the US scholars and politicians are truly creative and innovative in making new concepts. After the “Thucydides trap”, “aid trap” or “cultural trap”, now prevails the notion of “debt-trap”. According to the recent remarks of the US Vice President Pence during the APEC summit last week, US Vice President Pence argued against China by saying that unlike the United States which is a democracy, China, as an authoritarian regime, has drowned its partners in a sea of debt, which is a coerce and a compromise of the independence”.

Over the past decade or so, China has promoted one of the most dramatic and geographically far-reaching surges in peacetime lending in history. More than one hundred primarily low-income countries have taken out Chinese loans to finance their infrastructure projects, alongside their productive capacity in mining and other primary commodities. It is true that many of those debts come from the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s massive effort to upgrade trade and transport infrastructure throughout Eurasia, Africa and ASEAN member states.

Yet, China’s trade policy involving its activities has been accused, for example, Pence harshly criticized China’s global infrastructure drive, known as the “Belt and Road Initiative”, calling many of the projects low quality that also saddle developing countries with loans they can’t afford. He argued that “the United States offers a better option, as we don’t drown our partners in a sea of debt since we do not offer constricting belt or a one-way road. When you partner with us, we partner with you and we all prosper.”

Now the question is what are Chinese loans to the Eurasia, Africa and many other ones all over the world? Actually much of the debate on China’s debt-trap to the developing countries has been misperceived or even wrongly presented, simply because little or no specific attention has been given to the nature and purpose of Chinese loans globally. First, using the cases of Tajikistan in 2011 that reportedly handed over land on its disputed border with China to repay some of its debts and Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port Development Project, they have contended that China is or may use debt to gain economic and geopolitical leverage by trapping many other states in unsustainable loans. Second, they have suggested that African countries need a sustainable borrowing strategy if they are to meet the Millennium Development Goals.

Yet, although China is Africa’s largest trading partner and has spent billions of dollars in trade and investments without political strings attached, it is still not among Africa’s top creditors. According to the World Bank, between 2015 and 2017 Africa’s external debt payments increased, yet, among external debt owed by African states, 35% is to multilateral lenders, 32% to private lenders, about 20% to China, and 13% to other governments. Besides, interest rates are higher on private-sector loans, which account for 55% of interest payments, compared with China’s 17%. In addition, it is reported that China is not Africa’s largest donor. That honor still belongs to the United States. Chinese loan finance is varied. Some government loans qualify as official development aid. Other Chinese loans are export credits, suppliers’ credits, or commercial, not concessional in nature.

Equally, it is crucial to understand why African countries go for Chinese loans. African countries are not borrowing from China for consumption and luxury, they are investing in critical sectors. Much as China has demand for natural resources, job creation and the need for markets abroad, African countries simply need infrastructure projects. In this, China has financed more than 3,000, largely critical, infrastructure projects in different African countries.

In both theory and practice, it is widely-held that the appropriate external debt of a country can actually assist and improve its economic development. In today’s fierce international competition, the country which can attract large, low cost and sustainable foreign funds, will be the one to gain a competitive edge. Such a development reflects its financial prowess, not weakness. Given this context, it is worth underlining one of the reasons why China, since its “reform and openness” in 1978, has grown to become the second largest economic system in the world.

Accordingly, it is self-evident that the debt-trap diplomacy played by China through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been perceived wrongly and even a fallacy. Economically speaking, there is a significant difference between national and foreign debt. For a nation to raise funds, the central government can issue treasury bonds. The debt generated by this means from home and abroad according to the CIA data is about normal in those countries involved. National debt proportion in GDP is only related to the size of the government bonds that has nothing to do with China. Hence, external debt is strictly the liability of residents of a country for contractual repayment to non- residents. It must be excluded from direct investments and corporate capital.

Also, many BRI nations have long received loans from European nations, the United States, Japan and even India. It is therefore intriguing why such investments from Western nations, Japan and India, with nearly identical “debts” are regarded as “sweet pies,” while those from China are “debt traps”? For sure, it is because of unceasing foreign investments, China has steadfastly maintained the same economic policies in four decades. But, if nations along the BRI route often change their policies, and therefore cannot absorb low-cost and sustainable investments, they will surely be faced with questionable economic developments.

That can be one of the hard lessons for China to share with the rest of the world in reflection of its 40-year reform and openness.

Zhao Qingtong
Zhao Qingtong
Assistant to Research Fellow at Center for International Relations