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Advisors propose new system to regulate China’s overseas investments

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A government-backed coalition of international advisors to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has recommended that China apply more stringent environmental controls over its outbound investments. If adopted, this would be a major departure from China’s usual approach of deferring to host country rules, many of them inadequate, for regulating its overseas investments. 

High-level advisors, including former UNEP chief Erik Solheim and green finance heavyweight Ma Jun, propose a system to categorise Chinese overseas investments based on their polluting, climate and biodiversity impacts.

The classification methodology was published on 1 December at a press conference organised by the BRI International Green Development Coalition (BRIGC) in Beijing. It would see coal-fired power plants given a firm red light, while other types of Chinese overseas investments, such as hydropower and railways would need to implement internationally recognised mitigation measures to earn “green” status. On the other hand, solar and wind power are considered green projects that advance the climate goals of the Paris Agreement.

How would the ratings system work?

The proposal states that BRI investments would be classified as follows:

Red projects require stricter supervision and regulation. These are regarded as creating “significant and irreversible environmental harm” in at least one of the areas of climate change, pollution and biodiversity, or the risk of such harm. Examples include coal-fired power, hydropower, petrochemical, and mining and metal smelting projects.

Yellow projects are environmental neutral with moderate impacts. These cause no significant harm, and remaining harms can be mitigated by affordable and practical measures, on a reasonable scale, within the project itself. Examples include waste-to-energy projects and urban freight transportation with emission standards above Euro IV/national IV standards.

Green projects are encouraged. These have no significant negative impact on pollution, climate change or biodiversity, and contribute positively to at least one of these, particularly if they benefit the aims of international environmental treaties and conventions. Examples include the development and use of renewable energy (wind, solar, etc).

Higher standards

Christoph Nedopil Wang, founding director of the Green BRI Center at the Central University of Finance and Economics and one of the lead authors of the classification methodology, told China Dialogue that the system combines multiple international approaches to green finance.

The categorisation system and an ensuing taxonomy of green, yellow and red projects take inspiration from international standards such as the EU Sustainable Finance Taxonomy, the Equator Principles and performance standards issued by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank Group. It also uses China’s own guidelines for green credit and green bond issuance as references.

For years Chinese companies and financial institutions working abroad have primarily adhered to the “host country principle” which emphasises compliance with host countries’ environmental and social regulations. The inadequacy of the safeguards in many Global South countries, which make up the majority of BRI participant countries, means that the principle is often used as an excuse to lower standards for China’s outbound investments. This creates a stark contrast between China’s domestic green transition and its footprints across the rest of the world. While clean energy is growing at a breathtaking speed inside China, a large portion of the energy infrastructure Chinese companies are building overseas is coal-based. Many such projects are of the low-efficiency type that China itself has gradually phased out. Biodiversity threats are also a main concern of many of the BRI’s linear infrastructure projects such as railways and roads that intersect with key protection areas. Domestically, China has implemented an ecological redlining system hailed as a model for reconciling development with the conservation of nature.

There are calls on Chinese actors to follow higher standards in their overseas investments, but so far the response has been limited. None of the major Chinese financial institutions involved in overseas lending, for example, has signed on to the Equator Principles, which requires international standards (such as the IFC’s performance standards) to be applied in low-income countries with underdeveloped safeguards. In 2019, major Chinese banks such as China Development Bank and ICBC signed on to the Green Investment Principles (GIP) which call for “acute awareness of potential impacts of investments and operations on climate, environment and society in the Belt and Road region”. But mechanisms to translate such awareness into action are yet to be developed.

“The GIP is more market driven”, comments Nedopil Wang, “while our [proposed system] is much more targeted at the regulators.”  

The system considers three dimensions of a project’s potential environmental footprint: pollution, climate change and biodiversity. Projects that are contrary to the Paris Agreement objectives, such as those which increase emissions or undermine climate mitigation measures, are considered to cause “significant harm”. Similarly, projects that encroach on key biodiversity areas are given a red rating.

The system has some flexibility built in to allow contextual considerations of a project’s environmental merits. Some projects types, such as railways, may initially raise a red flag for their potential high risks to biodiversity. But if developers can credibly demonstrate that mitigation measures are taken to prevent or reduce environmental harms, following international standards, they may get a green classification. However, the original red rating will remain as a reminder of the project’s intrinsic high risk.

The creators believe the two-step classification will better equip the system to respond to complex situations on the ground in most countries along the Belt and Road. “The idea is to make the system adaptive,” says Nedopil Wang, who believes that a black-and-white taxonomy may be too rigid in some circumstances. Therefore, “process standards” which detail how a risk should be managed, are also included.

Risky projects

According to the system, the construction and operation of coal-fired power plants will be given a red rating with no mitigation or compensation measures available to upgrade it. The same applies to the retrofit of coal-fired power plants designed to extend their operating life.

On the other hand, a hydropower station will be given an initial red rating but could earn a green rating if it applies “internationally relevant” hydropower standards for mitigating environmental damage, such as the IFC’s 2015 Hydroelectric Power Standard.

The research team provided an initial classification of 38 project types under 20 sectors, ranging from renewable energy to passenger transport and livestock farming. The grouping of the project types into positive (green), neutral (yellow) and negative (red) lists for the first time creates a simple taxonomy for BRI projects based on their environmental impacts.

“I can see the value of a taxonomy [for BRI projects] which raises environmental awareness for investors,” a Chinese expert familiar with international green finance safeguards, who is not authorised to take interviews, told China Dialogue. “At the very early stage of a project, when you have a project concept note in front of you, a taxonomy may help you make a snap judgment about whether a sector is in line with your strategy or should be excluded in the first place.”

But she cautioned that Chinese overseas projects are often large-scale and such a taxonomy may be too simplistic to capture their complex impacts, particularly social impacts.

Architects of the new system respond that the taxonomy is for demonstration purposes at this stage, created to illustrate how the classification system can be run. They are planning to refine the list with more technical details and application guidelines as a next step. One key recommendation from the advisors is to link the system with more comprehensive environmental impact assessments for red and yellow projects.

Adoption is key

The international team proposing the system also recommends it be embedded into China’s decision-making processes on Belt and Road projects. According to their analysis, central government agencies such as the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) all have power to regulate overseas investment, but currently environmental considerations are not reflected in their approval processes.

“The positive and negative list will provide a foundation for governmental bodies to make sure overseas investment is in line with climate and environmental goals,” says Wang Ye, a green finance analyst with the World Resources Institute (WRI), who co-created the system. One key recommendation from the team is to develop an “exclusion list” of projects irreversibly harming the environment.

Yuan Feng, deputy director general of the NDRC’s Department for Regional Openness, which oversees the development of the BRI, offered his blessing at the press conference where the system was presented.

But Nedopil Wang admits that the appetite of regulators to adopt such a system is hard to gauge. It is noteworthy that the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) which hosts the BRIGC, does not have formal regulatory power over project development outside China’s borders.

Experts have also opined that green catalogues, which encourage certain types of investments, are easier for regulators to consider than exclusion lists, which often go beyond their legal authority. China’s own environmental laws have yet to regulate greenhouse gas emissions with binding force, they noted. Positive lists such as the green bond catalogue have so far been the mainstay of domestic actions to steer finance toward greener projects.

There are signs that some regulators might be more receptive of the recommendations. On 25 October, five central government agencies, including the central bank, the MEE and the banking regulator, issued a joint guidance for the country’s financing system to better serve China’s 2060 carbon neutrality goal. It specifically encourages financial institutions to support low-carbon development along the Belt and Road.

There is hope that China’s financial sector may adopt the classification system and apply differential treatment to overseas projects: favourable financing conditions for “good practice” projects and stringent conditions for risky ones.

“The China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission (CBIRC) has been involved in designing the system, so that’s a good sign,” Nedopil Wang told China Dialogue. “The de facto application [of the system] really depends on the specific champions within the different regulators.”

“Incorporating environmental risks into policy and finance practices requires these champions to push it relentlessly inside the system, like woodpeckers that always hit the same spot without getting a headache,” he said. “[Adopting the classification system] makes reputational sense and environmental sense for China today. But it requires a really different approach to some of the decision making.”

From our partner chinadialogue

Ma Tianjie is China Dialogue managing editor in Beijing. Before joining China Dialogue, he was Greenpeace's Program Director for Mainland China where he was a regular commentator on China's environmental challenges contributing to a range of media organisations. He holds a master’s degree in environmental policy from American University, Washington D.C.

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Economy

Role of WTO in Regularization of International Trade

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International trade is one of the main features of the globalized world and global economy. There it needs also a well-organized institutional mechanism to regulate it. World Trade Organization is an international organization established in 1995, whose main objective is to facilitate trade relations among its member countries for their mutual benefits. Currently 164 states are its members. The activities and works of WTO are performing by a Secretariate of about 700 staff located in Geneva, Switzerland, led by the Director General. English, Spanish and French are the official languages of World Trade Organization. The annual budget of WTO is about 180 million dollars.

Since its creation it is playing an important role in the regularization of international trade. It offers a forum and facilitation for negotiating trade agreements in order to reduce the barriers in the way of smooth international trade among member countries. Thus, the role of this organization is playing very important role in the regularization of international trade which is contributing to economic development and growth of member countries in this globalized world. The World Trade Organization also offers an institutional structure and legal framework for the execution and supervising of the international trade related agreements which are very helpful in regularization of international trade. It also settles disputes, disagreements and conflicts occurring during the interpretation and execution of the components of the international agreements related to international trade. During the past 60 years, the World Trade Organization and its predecessor organization the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) have assisted to establish a solid and flourishing global trade system, by this means helping to extraordinary international economic development.

The WTO is regularizing international trade more specifically through negotiating the decrease and finally elimination of barriers to trade among countries and try to make smoothly the working of the rules and principles governing the international trade e.g. tariffs, subsidies, product standards, and antidumping etc. It also administers and monitor the execution of the World Trade Organization’s determined guidelines for trade in services, goods as well as intellectual property rights related to international trade. It also monitors and review the member states international trade policies as well as make sure the transparency in bilateral and multilateral trade agreements. Likewise, it also solves disputes arising among members related to trade relations or related to the explanation of the provisions of the trade agreements. It also offers services to the governments of the developing states in the fields of capacity building of officers in matters related to international trade. WTO is also doing research on matters related to international trade and its related issues and collect data in order to find better solutions of the problems and obstacles in regularization of international trade. It is also trying to bring into the organization the 29 states who are yet not members of the organization aimed to assist and regulate their international trade according to the international standard.

One of the main barriers in way to international trade is disputes between the engaged parties. Since long this was a very critical issue limiting the trade among states. The WTO is playing very good and instrumental role in the solution of trade related disputes. Since the establishment of WTO in 1995 over 400 disputes related to trade have been brought by its member countries to WTO. The increasing number of bringing trade related disputes to WTO is showing the faith of member countries in the organization. Close trade relations have massive advantages but also create disputes and disagreements. With the increase of international trade, the possibility of its related disputes also increases. Previously, such problems and disagreements have caused in severe disputes. But at present, in the era of WTO the international trade related disputes are decreased because the member states have now dispute’s solution platform, and they are turning to the World Trade Organization to solve their trade related disagreements and disputes. Before the World War Second, there was not any such international organization or forum which could facilitate international trade and its related affairs, and there was also noany legal framework for solving trade related disputes among states of the word.

One of The World Trade Organization’s guiding principal is to continue the open boundaries for trade, ensure the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status among member countries and stop discriminatory behaviour of members towards other member(s) and bring transparency in doing international trade. It is also assisting counties to open their indigenous markets to global trade, with justified exemptions or with suitable flexibilities, promote and support to durable growth, reduce trade deficit, decrease poverty, and promote economic stability. It is also working to integrate different international trade policies and principles. The member countries of WTO are also under the compulsion to bring their trade related disputes to this organization and avoid unilateral actions. WTO is the central pillar of the current international trade system.

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Economy

Russia and France to strengthen economic cooperation

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On April 29, Russian President Vladimir Putin held videoconference with leaders of several French companies-members of the Franco-Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI France-Russia) to discuss some aspects of Russian-French trade, economic and investment cooperation, including the implementation of large joint projects as well as the prospects for collaborative work.

Putin noted that the Economic Council of the Franco-Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry is still operational in spite of difficulties, and the late April meeting was the fourth time since 2016. From the historical records, France has been and remains a key economic partner for Russia, holding a high but not sufficiently high, 6th place among EU countries in the amount of accumulated investment in the Russian economy and 5th place in the volume of trade.

Despite a certain decline in mutual trade in 2020 (it went down by 14 percent compared to 2019) the ultimate figure is quite acceptable at $13 billion. French investment in Russia is hovering around $17 billion, while Russian investment in France is $3 billion.

Over 500 companies with French capital are operating in various sectors of the Russian economy. French business features especially prominently in the Russian fuel and energy complex, automobile manufacturing and, of course, the food industry. “It could have been more if the French regulatory and state authorities treated Russian businesses as Russia is treating French businesses. We appreciate that in a difficult economic environment, French companies operating in Russia have not reduced their activity,” Putin pointed out.

The Russian Government established the Foreign Investment Advisory Council, which includes six French companies. Further, there is an opportunity to discuss specific issues related to the economic and investment climate in Russia, and that opportunity is traditionally provided at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, which will be held on June 2-5.

French companies are involved in the implementation of globally famous landmark projects, such as the construction of the Yamal LNG and Arctic LNG 2 facilities and the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. This, Putin regrettably said “We are aware of and regret the amount of political speculation concerning the latter. I would like to point out once again that it is a purely economic project, it has nothing to do with present-day political considerations.”

Russia intends to increase assistance to the development of science and technology. Funds will be directed primarily to innovation sectors such as pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, nuclear and renewable energy, and the utilisation of carbon emissions.

“We are interested in involving foreign companies that would like to invest in Russia and in projects we consider high priority. In order to do this, we will continue to use preferential investment regimes and execute special investment contracts, as you know. A lot of French companies successfully use these tools on the Russian market. For example, more than one third of 45 special investment contracts have been signed with European, including French, partners,” he explained during the meeting.

He also mentioned continuous efforts to attract foreign companies to localise their production to state purchases and to implementing the National Development Projects, as well as existing opportunities for French businesses in special economic zones. Today there are 38 such zones created throughout the Russian Federation.

Russia pays particular attention to attracting high-quality foreign specialists. Their employment is being fast-tracked, and their families can now obtain indefinite residence permits. There is a plan to launch a special programme of ‘golden visas’ whereby to issue a residence permit in exchange for investment in the real economy, a practice is used in many other countries.

Taking his turn, Co-Chair of the CCI France-Russian Economic Council, Gennady Timchenko, noted that the pandemic has changed the world, people and business, and that French companies in Russia are responsible employers and socially responsible members of Russian society.

Despite the crisis and the geopolitical situation, a number of French companies have launched production in 2020–2021. Companies such as Saint-Gobain and Danone have renewed their investments. French companies have increased their export of products manufactured in Russia; they are investing in priority sectors of the Russian economy. For example, this year the French company Lidea is launching a plant called Tanais to produce seeds. Russia is dependent on the import of 30 to 60 percent of these seeds, according to various estimates.

Despite the current geopolitical conditions and information field, there are important signals for French business and the Russian side to strengthen economic cooperation, attract investment, and create partnerships on a new mutually beneficial basis.

Co-Chair of the CCI France-Russian Economic Council, Patrick Pouyanne, noted that the meeting has become an excellent tradition, the presence of 17 CEOs and deputy CEOs of French companies shows the importance of these joint meetings, and further reflect the deep interest of French business in Russia.

In addition, Patrick Pouyanne further offered some insights into Russia-French cooperation. By 2020, twenty members of the Economic Council invested a total of 1.65 trillion rubles, supporting 170,000 jobs. These companies have operated in Russia for decades and continue investing in the Russian economy despite the sanctions and the epidemic. These companies help France maintain its status as the second largest investor in Russia. In 2020, France invested over $1 billion in Russia despite the economic difficulties caused by the pandemic.

Concluding his remarks, Patrick Pouyanne stressed that the economic operators believe everyone will benefit if Russia, France and all of Europe are not divided or isolated. This is the challenge today. Indeed, diplomacy has to continue playing an important role in settling differences, and businesses are convinced that meetings like this create bridges between Russia and France to strengthen investment and economic cooperation.

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Iran’s Economic Diplomacy through CPEC

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U.S. sanctions against Iran are characterized by strategic flexibility and adaptability. They are designed to have maximum negative and deterrent effect on Iran’s military, economic and diplomatic growth.  Tehran is exploring ways to counter these sanctions most probably by economic engagements with the regional countries. Iran’s perception of CPEC lends some credit to this argument.

Since the initiation of CPEC, the regional perception has already started to change as many countries have begun to see the project within the domain of their national interests. Iran has expressed its long-standing interests to join the CPEC viewing the corridor as a cornerstone for the country economic prosperity and regional connectivity.

Iran solely focuses more on the economic aspect of CPEC. Regional connectivity through CPEC can boost Iran’s stake in the global output. In 2015, on the sidelines of the United Nation General Assembly (UNGA) address, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani expressed a desire to be the part of CPEC. He emphasized the importance of connectivity projects for the region. Iran’s initial reluctance to CPEC was transformative in nature and heavily came down with the unfolding of new geoeconomic realities.

Iran’s inclination for the CPEC project even becomes the part of official discourse. Iran’s ambassador to Pakistan Mehdi Monardost showed keen interest to participate in the CPEC and named it as one of the greatest projects in the history of the region. He envisioned a great boost to bilateral trade between Pakistan and Iran under the framework of this regional connectivity corridor. In 2017, Iran’s economy minister Ali Tayyebnia participated in the New Silk Road summit. He praised the New Silk Road concept for regional connectivity.

Iran’s economy is already clutched due to the international sanctions invoked by the Trump administration after pulling back from the Iranian Nuclear Agreement formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018.Downplaying the perception of geopolitical competition between Gwadar and Chabahar, Iran higher officials negated the impression of competition falsely exaggerated by International and India media and insisted on the complementary nature of two ports.

In 2016,Iran and India signed an agreement for the development of Chabahar port and it was view as the counterweight to Gwadar port. Without explicitly mentioning India by name, Iran’s ambassador to Pakistan Syed Mohammad Ali Hoseeni defended the decision of his country to drop out India from the project in Chabahar by stating “when some foreign governments found reluctant in their relations with Iran and need other’s permission for even their normal interactions, for sure they would not be capable of planning and implementing such long-term cooperation contracts”.

The same rhetoric appears in the views of Chinese leadership. Brushing aside the allegations of Iran’s perceived resistance to CPEC and Gwadar port, Iran’s foreign minister Jawad Zarif dismissed the allegations and supported growth and development anywhere in Pakistan.

Chabahar is often seen as a rival to Gwadar port. However, Indian discourse has got an altogether different lease of life in the media compared to the Iranian one. Iran’s ambassador to Pakistan Mehdi honardoost utterly disregarded the narrative of competition of two ports. He invited both Pakistan and China to closely work in Chabahar port.

China considers Iran as an important country for its energy security, BRI and in the larger context of global competition with USA. China dual role both in Gwadar and Chabahar, according to the analysts, will likely reduce the impression of competition between two ports. Chinese stance on the Chabahar port also complement the Iran’s position on Chabahar. Chinese premier Le Keqiang rejected the notion that Chabahar port is in competition with the Gwadar. He is convinced with the idea that both ports have the potential to complement each other.

Tehran global status goes upward with the emerging financial and diplomatic backing of China. Beijing openly backs Tehran in the face of U.S. might.  On March 26, 2021, China and Iran signed an agreement expressing a desire to increase cooperation and trade relations over the next 25 years. Wang Yi, Chinese foreign minister, said that USA should rescind the sanctions against Iran. The 25 years deal is considered as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). According to Tehran Times analysts Peyman Hassani and Ammar Hossein Arabpour, this deal is considered a relief to Iran’s gas and oil sector against USA sanctions.

USA sanctions forcefully bar the countries from purchasing oil from Iran. The US Department of Defense’s report notes that China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) focus on pipelines and port construction. Pakistan’s reluctance to follow the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline which is stalled due to American pressure can be reviewed, too much sigh of relief for Tehran’s energy export.

Triangular relations of China, Pakistan and Iran will likely put Iran on the strong footing. Richard Caplan, a professor of international relations at the university of Oxford, notes, “The agreement which predates Biden, undercuts U.S. efforts to isolate Iran economically and, to some extent, diplomatically.

Diplomatic and economic isolation remain at the center of Iran’s foreign policy under the severe U.S. sanctions. Iran’s perceptions of CPEC revolves around the same fact that through regional engagements under CPEC and BRI, it can tackle its global problems to some extent.

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