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The strategic thinking behind the EU-China investment deal

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Washington was understandably perplexed that a China-EU investment agreement was concluded a few weeks before the Biden administration, especially a  president who has been advocating for multilateralism and the restoration of trust and an alliance with the EU.

Some analysts argue the agreement is a big win for China by breaching the transatlantic partnership, while some scholars contend that Beijing has made historical concessions to Brussels, indicating the future lucrativeness of European business in China. Both are valid to some extent, but the strategic thinking of Beijing and Brussels behind the pact may have been overlooked.

Beijing’s strategic thinking

The EU has always been the favoured target for Beijing. Despite numerous rebrandings, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the admittedly core economic, infrastructure and diplomatic policy proposed by President Xi in 2013, was initially intended to connect with the EU, facilitating Eurasian economic integration. According to Hellenic Institute of Transport, there was no regular direct freight service between China and Europe in 2008, whereas in 2019, 59 Chinese cities and 49 European cities in 15 countries have been linked by the BRI.

Also, although the EU is situated within Western democratic thought, the views of EU members regarding China are diverse and relatively different from the US and other English-speaking countries. Germany and France, the key pillars of the EU, still allow the usage of Huawei, whereas the US, Australia, Canada and the UK have variably banned it. Italy is the only one to endorse the BRI in the G7, a group of major Western democracies. The summit of China and Central and Eastern European Countries, known as “17+1”, has been held since 2012, gaining certain support from some EU members, in spite of Brussels’ aversion.

Probably, in the Chinese diplomats’ perceptions, the post-Brexit EU may become much more approachable and pragmatic to China, a mysterious rising land from the East, in that European continent nations with different linguistic and cultural backgrounds have been living together for millennial generations, leading to a more diverse and pragmatic approach to Beijing.

As for compromises Beijing has made, some of them, such as various reforms of state-owned-enterprises, would have been the essential component of the Chinese economic agenda, but the intriguing point is the timing and astonishing scope of concessions. After seven years of drawn-out negotiation, Beijing suddenly started pushing this pact at the beginning of 2020, when the Covid-19 broke out globally, and the Sino-American trade war further exacerbated, leading to China’s reputation plummeting in the West.

Through Sino-American relations, I doubt that Beijing may have noticed, as Professor Susan Shirk, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State during the Clinton administration, pointed out, that even the American business community, benefitting enormously from the Chinese market, has not really “stepped forward to defend US-China relations, much less defend China”, which is rare in bilateral history.

Recently, President Xi Jinping even wrote a letter to encourage Starbucks’ former chairman Howard Schultz to repair Sino-American relations. Having observed this, Beijing thus decided to show a high level of sincerity and openness to European business elites, not only by economic reforms but also by promising to work on labour rights. The latter may not be a priority in Beijing, but Beijing conspicuously notes the ideological concerns of EU politicians in order to win the hearts and minds of Brussels.

Brussels’ strategic thinking

As for the EU, China has unquestionably been an attractive market. Calculated by purchasing power, China’s GDP has been de facto the largest economy for years. As the only positive-growth nation in 2020 among G20 members, China has the largest middle class, signifying potent consuming ability. Recent Chinese economic reforms primarily aim to promote consumption, which is the icing on the Chinese market’s cake, and this is also embedded in European views of China and the US.

The Pew Research Center has shown that more countries in Europe viewed China rather than the US as the world’s leading economy in 2019 and 2020. Also, more residents in Germany and France regarded US power and influence as threatening than China in 2018. Even with the new Biden administration, EU leaders anticipate a renewed trans-atlantic partnership but do not expect a sudden revolution of EU-American trade war, as bilateral trade disputes are structural and beyond Trump’s presidency.

More realistically, what is one of the major external concerns EU members face today? Back in the Cold War, the western expansion of the Soviet Union deeply disturbed European security, necessitating their consistent alliance with the US.

However, as Jonathan E. Hillman, a senior fellow at Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote: “Russia has nuclear weapons but also a one-trick economy focused on energy exports, a rusting military, and a declining population.” In particular, Russia has been increasingly challenged to maintain traditional influence in Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia, not to mention any comprehensive aggression to EU.

Furthermore, geographically, China is distant, and the EU does not have fundamental military interests in South China Sea but rather seeks to maintain peace and freedom of navigation for their shipping and trade, notwithstanding Brussels’ political friction with Beijing. But the large-scale uncontrolled migration from Africa and the Middle East may well be the EU’s main worry. However, regardless of some Western media ostensibly branding China as a neocolonialist in Africa, China has essentially supported the African economy via the BRI investment, creating local employment and purportedly discouraging the flow of a certain amount of immigrants to Europe. So, realistically, by signing the pact, the EU may keep the door open to cooperate with China in Africa.

On the flip side, if the EU sides with the US to the exclusion of China, what will happen to the EU? Certainly, Brussels will be praised by Washington politically, while the business sphere may be a different story. The recent Sino-Australian trade disputes indicate that “in the world of international commerce, democratic and strategic friends are often the fiercest rivals”, argued Professor James Laurenceson from the University of Technology Sydney, as Chinese tariffs against Australian goods have brought opportunities to businesses in America and New Zealand. So, US corporations in China must be delighted to see business space left by the EU companies because of possible EU-China trade skirmishes.

Sensibly, the EU is adopting an independent foreign policy to maintain autonomy between China and the US. More notably, as a third party during the Sino-American power competition, having signed a deal with Beijing, Brussels may possibly request Washington to offer more, thus maximizing its geopolitical and commercial interests.

Conclusion

To conclude, both sides made pragmatic decisions to sign the pact. Professor John Mearsheimer, at the University of Chicago, argued a few years ago that liberal dreams are great delusion facing international realities. China has executed a realist foreign policy since Deng Xiaoping’s reform, and this time, the EU may have woken up, because this deal signifies that geopolitical calculation has overtaken ideological divergence.

Author’s note: First published in johnmenadue.com

Yuan Jiang is a Chinese PhD student currently studying at the Queensland University of Technology, Australia. He is affiliated with the QUT Digital Media Research Centre, focusing on the Belt and Road Initiative. He completed his master’s degree in political science at Moscow State Institute of International Relations as a Russian Speaker and bachelor’s degree of law at Shanghai University. He served as an Account Manager of ZTE Corporation and special correspondent in Asia Weekly and The Paper/Pengpai News, both in Moscow. His writing has also appeared in The Diplomat, The National Interest, South China Morning Post, Russian International Affairs Council, Australian Outlook- Australian Institute of International Affairs, China Brief-The Jamestown Foundation, Global Times (English Edition), Modern Diplomacy, US-China Perception Monitor, Southern People Weekly Magazine, People’s Daily (Overseas Edition), Caixin and Kanshijie Magazine. As a Chinese student and journalist, he was invited to comment on Financial Times, Russia Today and some Russian TV and radio talk shows several times. He tweets at @jiangyuan528. For more information, please refer to his LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/jiangyuan528/

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Synchronicity in Economic Policy amid the Pandemic

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Synchronicity is an ever present reality for those who have eyes to see.Carl Jung

The Covid pandemic has elicited a number of deficiencies in the current global governance framework, most notably its weaknesses in mustering a coordinated response to the global economic downturn. A global economy is not fully “global” if it is devoid of the capability to conduct coordinated and effective responses to a global economic crisis. What may be needed is a more flexible governance structure in the world economy that is capable of exhibiting greater synchronicity in economic policies across countries and regions. Such a governance structure should accord greater weight to regional integration arrangements and their development institutions at the level of key G20 decisions concerning international economic policy coordination.

The need for greater synchronicity in the global economy arises across several trajectories:

· Greater synchronicity in the anti-crisis response across countries and regions – according to the IMF it is a coordinated response that renders economic stimulus more efficacious in countering the global downturn

· Synchronicity in the withdrawal of stimulus across the largest economies – absent such coordination the timing of policy normalization could be postponed with negative implications for macroeconomic stability

· Greater synchronicity in opening borders, lifting lockdowns and other policy measures related to responding to the pandemic: such synchronicity provides more scope for cross-country and cross-regional value-added chains to boost production

· Greater synchronicity in ensuring a recovery in migration and the movement of people across borders.

Of course such greater synchronicity in economic policy should not undermine the autonomy of national economic policy – it is rather about the capability of national and regional economies to exhibit greater coordination during downturns rather than a progression towards a uniform pattern of economic policy across countries. Synchronicity is not only about policy coordination per se, but also about creating the infrastructure that facilitates such joint actions. This includes the conclusion of digital accords/agreements that raise significantly the potential for economic policy coordination. Another area is the development of physical infrastructure, most notably in the transportation sphere. Such measures serve to improve regional and inter-regional connectivity and provide a firmer foundation for regional economic integration.

The paradox in which the world economy finds itself is that even as the current crisis is leading to fragmentation and isolationism there is a greater need for more policy coordination and synchronicity to overcome the economic downturn. This need for synchronicity may well increase in the future given the widening array of global risks such as risks to cyber-security as well as energy security and climate change. There is also the risk of the depletion of reserves to counter the Covid crisis that has been accompanied by a rise in debt levels across developed and developing economies. Also, the speed of the propagation of crisis impulses (that effectively increases with technological advances and globalization) is not matched by the capability of economic policy coordination and efficiency of anti-crisis policies.

There may be several modes of advancing greater synchronicity across borders in international relations. One possible option is a major superpower using its clout in a largely unipolar setting to facilitate greater policy coordination. Another possibility is for such coordination to be supported by global international institutions such as the UN, the WTO, Bretton Woods institutions, etc. Other options include coordination across the multiplicity of all countries of the global economy as well as across regional integration arrangements and institutions.

Attaining greater synchronicity across countries will necessitate changes in the global governance framework, which currently is characterized by weak multilateral institutions at the top level and a fragmented framework of governance at the level of countries. What may be needed is a greater scope accorded to regional integration arrangements that may facilitate greater coordination of synchronicity at the regional level as well as across regions. The advantage of providing greater weight to the regional institutions in dealing with global economic downturns emanates from their greater efficiency in coordinating an anti-crisis response at the regional level via investment/infrastructure projects as well as macroeconomic policy coordination. Regional development institutions also have a comparative advantage in leveraging regional interdependencies to promote economic recovery.

In conclusion, the global economy has arguably become more fragmented as a result of the Covid pandemic. The multiplicity of country models of dealing with the pandemic, the “vaccine competition”, the breaking up of global value chains and their nationalization and regionalization all point in the direction of greater localization and self-sufficiency. At the same time there is a need from greater synchronicity across countries particularly in the context of the current pandemic crisis. Regional integration arrangements and institutions could serve to facilitate such coordination in economic policy within and across the major regions of the world economy.

From our partner RIAC

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Economy

A New Strategy for Ukraine

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Authors: Anna Bjerde and Novoye Vremia

Four years ago, the World Bank prepared a multi-year strategy to support Ukraine’s development goals. This was a period of recovery from the economic crisis of 2014-2015, when GDP declined by a cumulative 16 percentage points, the banking sector collapsed, and poverty and other measures of insecurity spiked. Indeed, we noted at the time that Ukraine was at a turning point.

Four years later, despite daunting internal and external challenges, including an ongoing pandemic, Ukraine is a stronger country. It has proved more resilient to unpredictable challenges and is better positioned to achieve its long-term development vision. This increased capacity is first and foremost the result of the determination of the Ukrainian people.

The World Bank is proud to have joined the international community in supporting Ukraine during this period. I am here in Kyiv this week to launch a new program of assistance. In doing this, we look back to what worked and how to apply those lessons going forward. In Ukraine—as in many countries—the chief lesson is that development assistance is most effective when it supports policies and projects which the government and citizens really want.

This doesn’t mean only easy or even non-controversial measures; rather, it means we engage closely with government authorities, business, local leaders, and civil society to understand where policy reforms may be most effective in removing obstacles to growth and human development and where specific projects can be most successful in delivering social services, particularly to the poorest.

Looking back over the past four years in Ukraine, a few examples stand out. First, agricultural land reform. For the past two decades, Ukraine was one of the few countries in the world where farmers were not free to sell their land.

The prohibition on allowing farmers to leverage their most valuable asset contributed to underinvestment in one of Ukraine’s most important sources of growth, hurt individual landowners, led to high levels of rural unemployment and poverty, and undermined the country’s long-term competitiveness.

The determination by the President and the actions by the government to open the market on July 1 required courage. This was not an easy decision. Powerful and well-connected interests benefited from the status quo; but it was the right one for Ukrainian citizens.

A second area where we have been closely involved is governance, both with respect to public institutions and the rule of law, as well as the corporate governance of state-owned banks and enterprises. Poll after poll in Ukraine going back more than a decade revealed that strengthening public institutions and creating a level playing field for business was a top priority.

World Bank technical assistance and policy financing have supported measures to restore liability for illicit enrichment of public officials, to strengthen existing anticorruption agencies such as NABU and NACP, and to create new institutions, including the independent High-Anticorruption Court.

We are also working with government to ensure the integrity of state-owned enterprises. Our support to the government’s unbundling of Naftogaz is a good example; assistance in establishing supervisory boards in state-owned banks is another. We hope our early dialogue on modernizing the operations of Ukrzaliznytsia will be equally beneficial.

As we begin preparation of a new strategy, the issues which have guided our ongoing work—strengthening markets, stabilizing Ukraine’s fiscal and financial accounts; and providing inclusive social services more efficiently—remain as pressing today as they were in 2017. Indeed, the progress which has been achieved needs to continue to be supported as they frequently come under assault from powerful interests.

At the same time, recent years have highlighted emerging challenges where we hope to deepen and expand our engagement. First, COVID-19 has underscored the importance of our long partnership in health reform and strengthening social protection programs.

The changes to the provision of health care in Ukraine over recent years has helped mitigate the effects of COVID-19 and will continue to make Ukrainians healthier. Government efforts to better target social spending to the poor has also made a difference. We look forward to continuing our support in both areas, including over the near term through further support to purchase COVID-19 vaccines.

Looking ahead, the challenge confronting us all is climate change. Here again, our dialogue with the government has positioned us to help, including to achieve Ukraine’s ambitious commitment to reduce carbon emissions. During President Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington in early September we discussed operations to strengthen the electricity sector; a program to transition from coal power to renewables; municipal energy efficiency investments; and how to tap into Ukraine’s unique capacity to produce and store hydrogen energy. This is a bold agenda, but one that can be realized.

I have been gratified by my visit to Kyiv to see first-hand what has been achieved in recent years. I look forward to our partnership with Ukraine to help realize this courageous vision of the future.

Originally published in Ukrainian language in Novoye Vremia, via World Bank

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Russia, China and EU are pushing towards de-dollarization: Will India follow?

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Authors: Divyanshu Jindal and Mahek Bhanu Marwaha*

The USD (United States Dollar) has been the world’s dominant currency since the conclusion of the second world war. Dollar has also been the most sought reserve currency for decades, which means it is held by central banks across the globe in significant quantities. Dollar is also primarily used in cross-border transactions by nations and businesses. Without a doubt, US dollar’s dominance is a major reason for the US’ influence over public and private entities operating around the world. This unique position not only makes US the leader in the financial and monetary system, but also provides incomparable leverage when it comes to coercive ability to shape decisions taken by governments, businesses, and institutions.

However, this dynamic is undergoing gradual and visible changes with the emergence of China, slowdown in the US economy, European Union’s independent policy assertion, Russia-US detachment, and increasing voices from across the world to create a polycentric world and financial system in which hegemonic capacities can be muted. The world is witnessing de-dollarisation attempts and ambitions, as well as the rise of digital or cryptocurrencies at an increasing pace today.

With Russia, China and EU leading the way in the process of de-dollarisation, it needs to be argued whether India, currently among the most dollarized countries (in invoicing), will take cue from the global trends and push towards de-dollarisation as well.

Why de-dollarisation?

The dominant role of dollar in the global economy provides US disproportionate amount of influence over other economies. As international trade needs a payment and financial system to take place, any nation in position to dictate the terms and policies over these systems can create disturbances in trade between other players in the system. This is how imposition of sanctions work in theory.  

The US has for long used imposition of sanctions as a tool to achieve foreign policy and goals, which entails restricting access to US-led services in payment and financial transaction processing domains.

In recent years, several nations have started opposing the unilateral decisions taken by the US, a trend which accelerated under the former president Donald Trump’s tenure. He withdrew US from the JCPOA deal between Iran and US, aimed at Iran’s compliance with nuclear discipline and non-proliferation. Albeit US withdrawal, other signatories like EU, Russia, and China expressed discontent towards the unilateral stance by the US and stayed committed towards the deal and have desired for continued engagements with Iran in trade and aid.

Similarly, the sanctions imposed on Russia in the aftermath of the Crimean conflict in 2014 did not find the reverberations among allies to the extent that US had wanted. While EU members had switched to INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges) which acts as a special-purpose vehicle to facilitate non-USD trade with Iran to avoid US sanctions, EU nations like Germany continue to have deep trade ties with Russia, and  EU remains the largest investor as well the biggest trade partner for Russia, with trade taking place in euros, instead of dollars.

Further, despite the close US-EU relations, EU has started its own de-dollarization push. This became more explicit when earlier this year, EU announced plans to prioritize the euro as an international and reserved currency, in direct competition with dollar.

Trajectories of Russia, China, and EU’s de-dollarisation push

Russia has emerged as the nation with the most vigorous policies oriented towards de-dollarization. In 2019, the then Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had invited Russia’s partners to cooperate towards a mechanism for switching to use of national currencies when it comes to transactions between the countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It must be noted that in Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which functions as a Russian-led trade bloc, more than 70 percent of the settlements are happening in national currencies. Further, in recent years, Russia has also switched to settlements in national currencies with India (for arms contracts) and the two traditionally strong defence partners are aiming at exploring technology as means for payment in national currencies.

Russia’s push to detach itself from the US currency can also be seen in the transforming nature of Russia’s foreign exchange reserves where Russia for the first time had more gold reserves than dollars according to the 2018 data (22 percent dollars, 23 percent gold, 33 percent Euros, 12 percent Yuan). As per the statement by Russian Finance Minister in 2021, Russia aims to hold 40 percent euro, 30 percent yuan, 20 percent gold and 5 percent each of Japanese yen and British pound. In comparison, China holds a significant amount of dollar denominated assets as forex reserves (50 to 60 percent) and has the US as its top export market with which trade takes place mostly in US dollars. Moreover, Russia has also led the push by creating its own financial messaging system- SPFS (The System for Transfer of Financial Messages) and a new national electronic payment system – Mir, which has witnessed an exponential rise in its use.

While China-Russia trade significantly depends on euros instead of  their own national currencies (even though use of national currencies is slowly rising), instead of pushing the Chinese national currency Renminbi (RMB), Beijing is aiming towards establishing itself as the first nation to issue a sovereign digital currency, which would help China to engage in cross border payments without depending on the US financial systems. Thus, for China, digital currency seems to be the route towards countering the dollar dominance as well as to increase its own clout by leading the way for an alternate global financial system operating in digital currencies. It needs to be noted here that EU has succeeded in internationalizing the euro and this can be seen in the fact that EU-Russia trade as well as Russia-China trade occurs predominately in euros now.

Will India follow suit?

Indian economy’s dynamic with dollar is different than other major economies in the world today. Unlike China or Russia (or EU and Japan), which hold dollars in significant amounts, India’s reserve is not resulted by an export surplus. While others accumulate dollars from their earnings of trade surplus, India maintains a large forex reserve even though India imports less than it exports. In India’s case, the dollar reserves come through infusion of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and Foreign Portfolio Investment (FPI), which reflects the confidence of foreign investors in India’s growth prospects. However, accumulation of dollar reserves through this route (which helps in offsetting the current deficit faced in trade), India remains vulnerable to policy changes by other nations’ monetary policies which are beyond India’s own control. For instance, it has been often highlighted that a tightening of the US monetary policy leads to capital outflows (capital flight) from India, thus impacting India adversely.

New Dehi has resisted a de-dollarization push for long. Back in 2009, when Russia and China had started the push via BRIC mechanism (Brazil, Russia, India, China grouping), it was argued that New Delhi would not like to upset Washington, especially after the historic US-India civil nuclear agreement was signed just a year before in 2008 -for full civil nuclear cooperation between the two nations.

Further, currency convertibility is an important part of global commerce as it opens trade with other countries and allows a government to pay for goods and services in a currency that may not be the buyer’s own. Non-convertible currency creates difficulties for participating in international market as the transactions take longer routes for processing (which in case of dollar transactions, is controlled by US systems).

 Just like Chinese renminbi, Indian rupee is also not yet fully convertible at the exchange markets. While this means that India can control its burden of foreign debt, and inflow of capital for investment purposes in its economy, it also means an uneasy access to capital, less liquidity in financial market, and less business opportunities.

It can be argued that just like the case of China and Russia, India can also look towards having a digital currency in the near future, and some signs for this are already visible. India can also look towards having an increased share of euros and gold in its foreign exchange reserves, a method currently being used by both China and Russia.  

Conclusion

An increasing number of voices are today pointing towards the arrival of the Asian age (or century). With China now being the leading economic power in the world, US economy on a slowdown, and emergence of an increasing polycentric structure in world economy, the dominance of dollar is bound to witness a shake-up. In order for global systems to remain in sync with the transforming economic order, structural changes like control over leading economic organisations (like IMF and World Bank) will become increasingly desirable.

With an increasing number of nations now looking towards digital currencies and considering a change in the mix of their foreign exchange reserves, a general trend is now visible even if it would not mean an end to dollar’s dominance in the immediate future. As the oil and gas trade in international markets also start shifting from dollar, geopolitical balance of power is expected to witness a shift after decades of US dominance.

Major geopolitical players like China, Russia and EU have already started their journey to counter the dominance of dollar, and the strings of US influence on political decisions that come with it. According to Chinese media, Afghanistan’s reconstruction after US-withdrawal can also accelerate the global de-dollarization push as nations like Saudi Arabia might look for establishing funds for assisting Afghanistan in non-dollar currencies. So, conflict areas highlight another avenue where de-dollarization push will find a testing arena in coming times.

India has several options for initiating its de-dollarization process. Starting from Russia-India transactions, trade with Iran, EAEU, BRICS and SCO members in national or digital currencies can also become a reality in near future. Considering India’s present dollar dependence, whether US sees India’s move towards de-dollarisation as a direct challenge to US-India relations, or accepts it as a shift in the global realities, has to be seen.  

*Mahek Bhanu Marwaha is a master’s student in Diplomacy, Law and Business program at the OP Jindal Global University, India. Her research interests revolve around Indian and Chinese foreign policies and trade relations.

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