Against the “debt-trap diplomacy” narrative

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In March 2000, Chinese president Jiang Zemin argued that China should pursue a strategy of “Going Out,” with the explicit aim of fostering Chinese investment abroad. As Zongyuan Zoe Liu documents in her book Sovereign Funds, this was — after the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s — an effort to redirect its surplus of financial capital abroad, to reduce both speculative investment at home and upward pressure on its currency (p. 56). 

One element of “Going Out” has been a substantial increase in overseas lending. Between 2000 and 2021, China lent a total of $1.3 trillion to other countries, through the government, state-owned policy banks, and other state-owned commercial enterprises. This was heavily influenced by the Belt and Road Initiative, a major global infrastructure lending initiative launched in 2013 by Xi Jinping: globally, 151 countries (representing over two-thirds of the world’s population) have signed on to or expressed interest in Belt and Road infrastructure projects. 

Due to these loans, by 2017, China had surpassed the World Bank and the IMF to become the world’s largest official creditor. To illustrate, consider its lending in Africa: between 2000 and 2019, Chinese lenders committed $153 billion to public sector borrowers throughout Africa alone. This represented a significant change since the 1990s. In 1990, more than 85% of construction projects on the continent had American and European contractors. By 2013, the Western share fell to 12%, compared to the 31% in Chinese firms’ hands.  

In November last year, President Biden accused China of engaging in “debt-trap diplomacy,” in contrast to “high-quality transparent approaches to infrastructure and to development.” This has echoed the stance of the Trump White House, made explicit by Mike Pence in 2018

What exactly is debt-trap diplomacy? The Indian scholar who coined the phrase, Brahma Chellaney, has argued that China’s goal with this lending is primarily geopolitical, not commercial. In particular, per this argument, China intentionally places countries in debt traps with its lending with harsh contracts and low-quality projects, both to seize the infrastructure built as collateral if defaults occur and to get geopolitical concessions in exchange for debt relief in periods of financial distress. 

Overall, I’m pretty uncompelled by this. Geopolitics is probably part of the mix, but my guess is that Chinese firms and banks are often acting independently, rather than in coordinated ways; that commercial interests are a big part of the picture; and that the aim of China’s lending isn’t really to encourage defaults or push countries into debt traps on purpose (rather than to have the loans repaid). 

Many of these infrastructure projects have failed

Debt-trap diplomacy, as a hypothesis, is an attempt to explain the following fact: many Chinese-funded infrastructure projects abroad have failed, placing countries in debt with little to show for it. 

Consider the Mombasa–Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) in Kenya, the first phase of an ambitious railway system known as the Kenya Standard Gauge Railway — a $3.6 billion, ~600-kilometer project launched in 2017. 90 percent of the project’s cost was covered by China’s Exim Bank (one of the main financiers of Belt and Road projects), and the China Roads and Bridges Corporation (CRBC) managed the project, including its construction, after conducting a feasibility study. 

This project strikes me as basically a white elephant. Taylor (2020) documented numerous issues (referring to it scathingly as “Kenya’s new lunatic express”), noting that the line made a loss of $9.8 million in its first year of operation, largely due to low cargo business. The SGR was designed to transport up to 22 million tons of freight annually, but investigative reports show that only 5 million tons were transported in 2018. In May 2019, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics revised its revenue report for the SGR down by 44 percent, with less than ten percent of the freight in and out of Mombasa utilizing the SGR in 2018. 

What about the CRBC’s feasibility study? David Ndii (who I’m generally a fan of) picks it apart:

The CRBC feasibility study has a chapter titled Economic Evaluation, though it is unlike any investment appraisal I have come across. It asserts that the project has “high profitability” and “financial accumulation ability”, but there are no cash flow projections to back this up. It presents Net Present Value (NPV) of three different configurations of US$ 2.0, 2.4 and 2.6 billion as evidence of viability, leaving one at a loss to understand how this justifies borrowing US$3.2 billion for the project. NPV is the current value of the future earnings of a project and should be higher than the cost of the project.

Apart from this, he criticizes the feasibility study’s claim that the SGR would make freight cheaper, since the tariff it would need to charge to break even was higher than the prevailing railway tariff. 

Many other Chinese-built infrastructure projects globally are riddled with cracks. In the case of Pakistan’s Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Project, these cracks are literal — the project was closed once in July 2022 due to major fractures in its tailrace tunnel, and within a week of its reopening earlier this year, power generation fell sharply again due to cracks in its headrace tunnel. (See slide 23 of this presentation if you’re curious about the difference between a tailrace and a headrace tunnel!) 

And this has real effects on countries’ debt burdens. Horn, Reinhart, and Trebesch (2022) created a large dataset of defaults and debt restructuring operations involving China in the 21st century. Across 39 developing countries, they find 84 credit events and distressed debt restructurings between 2000 and 2021. They compare this to data about lending from the Paris Club, and show that China’s overseas loans have been responsible for more sovereign credit events since 2008 than loans from members of the Paris Club. 

On top of this, their data suggest that China rarely grants face value relief on debts. Instead, akin to Western governments in the 1980s and 1990s, the vast majority of restructurings of Chinese loans are simply reschedulings, rather than actual reductions in the debt owed. 

Now, Brautigam, Huang, and Acker (2020) find that between 2000 and 2019, China has canceled $3.4 billion in debt throughout the continent. However, their other findings are consistent with the previous paper: changes in interest rates, reductions in principal, and refinancing of loans are very uncommon when restructuring Chinese debt. When borrowers have requested Paris Club terms to rescheduling, Chinese lenders have occasionally agreed to apply those terms, but usually set different, often confidential terms depending on the specific loan in question. This problem is in part explained by bureaucratic problems — to write off a loan, civil servants need permission from the State Council. But as The Economist puts it, “Being the face of a write down — in effect admitting that the bureaucracy made a mistake — is a professional stain that is hard to scrub.”

I think these are serious problems. Many of these infrastructure projects are often poorly managed white elephants that put countries at elevated debt risk. But I don’t think this is evidence that China aims to intentionally put countries in debt traps, that this is primarily driven by geopolitics rather than commercial interests, or that China uses the promise of restructuring frequently to extract geopolitical concessions. Instead, as Michael Pettis notes, I think “Chinese lending to developing countries is characterized more by inexperience — veering at times towards incompetence — than it is by some master plan of debt-trap diplomacy.” 

The evidence for debt-trap diplomacy is relatively weak

The most commonly cited example of supposed debt-trap diplomacy is the case of Sri Lanka. For instance, Chellaney himself has said, in his essay introducing the phrase, that it is “Exhibit A.” He argues that Sri Lanka’s indebtedness to China allowed it to gain a substantial stake in the Hambantota International Port (a deep-water port financed by a loan from China Exim, constructed by the China Harbour Engineering Company), and also allowed it to pressure Sri Lanka to gain other concessions, like restarting previously-suspended Chinese initiatives. 

Similarly, Maria Abi-Habib has argued in The New York Times that China and Sri Lanka’s deal involved China using its loans to apply pressure on Sri Lanka, allowing it to “seize” the port in exchange for erasing “roughly $1 billion in debt for the port project.” Abi-Habib argues that this gives China a “strategic foothold along a critical commercial and military waterway.” Lauren Freyer of NPR has characterized this as effectively foreclosure, claiming “the Chinese state-owned operator physically took control of the port in late 2017 — on a 99-year lease — after the Sri Lankan government defaulted on its loans.”

As far as I can tell, this seems like a misrepresentation of what actually happened. For starters, the final claim, that the Sri Lankan government defaulted on its loans, is outright false. There was no default. The debt for the port project was not erased either. As Umesh Moramudali points out in The Diplomat, Sri Lanka is still obliged to repay the five loans it obtained from the Exim Bank to construct the port. It did give CMPort, a Chinese state-owned company, a 99-year lease of the port, but it did not use the $1.1 billion received to pay off these five loans. Instead, the “dollar inflow was used to strengthen the country’s foreign reserves and make some short-term foreign debt repayments.” Crucially, as Jones and Hameiri (2020) note in their paper for Chatham House, most of this debt was owed to private investors in international markets — this makes sense, seeing as only two loans of the five in question ($357 million out of $1.2 billion) were obtained at commercial rates (the rest were concessionary). Moramudali adds that “[t]hose loan installments  (including interest) amounted to less than 5 percent of Sri Lanka’s total foreign debt repayments.” In fact, Jones and Hameiri document that, in 2016, Sri Lanka lobbied Indian, Japanese, and Chinese firms to try to lease the port to them in exchange for US dollars — it wasn’t just Chinese firms they were looking at. 

Why did Sri Lanka desperately need the dollar inflow to begin with? In 2016, Sri Lanka was effectively in a state of debt crisis. Between the end of the civil war in 2009 and 2014, Sri Lanka’s total debt tripled. By 2016, debt servicing absorbed 44 percent of government revenues. The economist Saman Kelegama wrote that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government employed a borrowing-led development strategy, helped by the Fed’s quantitative easing lowering global interest rates in the aftermath of the Great Recession. When the Fed began moving away from QE in 2013, Sri Lanka’s borrowing costs rose, and its foreign reserves shrank due to failed attempts to defend its currency. In short, Rajapaksa’s government placed Sri Lanka at risk of currency crisis, largely due to debt owed to international capital markets, and leasing the port was a way of acquiring dollars. 

Finally, the Hambantota Port was a Sri Lankan project from its inception, not a project proposed by Chinese companies. Hopkins political scientist Deborah Brautigam notes that the idea of constructing a port near Hambantota has been in Sri Lankan development plans for decades, with an early French feasibility study conducted in 2002. In 2006, Brautigam says that Ramboll, a Danish engineering company, “concluded that Hambantota could compete with Singapore’s vehicle transshipment and bulk cargo handling facilities,” and that Sri Lankan business leaders wanted the government to go forward with such a plan.

Many other examples of supposed debt-trap diplomacy don’t hold up to scrutiny either. 

Consider Kenya’s SGR again. Since 2018, there has been an internationally spread rumor that Kenya was at risk of losing the Kenya Port Authority (KPA)’s assets, including the Port of Mombasa (East Africa’s largest seaport). Indeed, a leaked letter from Kenya’s Auditor General warned that the port could be seized if Kenya defaulted on its SGR loans. 

Brautigam, Bhalaki, Deron, and Wang (2022) find that this rumor is false, and their evaluation identifies many mistakes in the AG’s assessment, as well as reports of the leaked letter. For one, they found that the Kenya Port Authority was not named as a borrower, but the AG incorrectly read the contract and assumed they were. Additionally, both the AG and reports ignored strong evidence to the contrary. The KPA’s 2019/2020 annual financial report made it clear that the only risk faced by the KPA was its cash flows, not its assets. Lastly, if ports and similar assets were indeed collateral, the Government of Kenya would have been required to file papers that created a public record of this arrangement, but no such record exists. 

Another major case frequently mentioned is that of Pakistan. As Chellaney puts it in his piece for The Hill,

Saddled with huge Chinese debt, Pakistan has given China exclusive rights, coupled with a tax holiday, to run Gwadar Port for the next four decades. China will pocket 91 percent of the port’s revenues. It also plans to build near the port a Djibouti-style outpost for its navy.

I think there’s a chronological problem in this diagnosis of debt-trap diplomacy. The first phase of the Gwadar Port’s construction happened from 2002 to 2006, at $248 million, and the second phase of construction is occurring right now as part of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. The contract for construction and operation of the second phase — the “exclusive rights” Chellaney references — was drawn up in 2013. But 2013 was before most of the rise in external debt to China that Pakistan experienced (since that’s when the CPEC plan even began). So I don’t think this is strong evidence of debt-trap diplomacy, as China didn’t need to put Pakistan in a debt trap to operate the Gwadar Port or pocket most of the revenues. 

Similarly, examples of Malaysia and oil investments in Angola turn out to be exaggerated. In fact, Brautigam and Rithmire say that their “research shows that Chinese banks … have never actually seized an asset from any country.”

The big picture

To be sure, China’s lending often differs in significant ways from many other bilateral and multilateral loans. 

Gelpern et al. (2022) review 100 contracts between state-owned companies and institutions in China and government borrowers, including 47 contracts in Africa (largely south of the Sahara). As a benchmark, they compare these contracts to loan contracts from bilateral creditors within and outside the OECD, regional development banks, and commercial banks, among other major lenders.

They find several major differences between China’s loan contracts and loans in the benchmark sample. First, they often have substantially more far-reaching confidentiality clauses than other loan agreements. Second, 30 of the studied contracts required borrowers to maintain a special bank account, at an approved bank, with certain revenues (e.g., a portion of revenue from the infrastructure projects in question) required to flow into them. These bank accounts were controlled by the lender, and served as security for the loan — in essence, cash collateral. Third, nearly three-quarters of the contracts studied included a “No Paris Club” clause, which requires borrowers to commit to not restructure their debts in the Paris Club. Fourth, many contracts try to give lenders some influence over the domestic policy of countries that receive loans. 

Chellaney argues that the fourth point, in particular, offers evidence of debt-trap diplomacy. This is not very strong evidence, in my opinion, because many of these clauses actually aim to ensure the loan is repaid. One example the authors cite of a clause of attempts to “influence domestic policy” is, “All CDB [China Development Bank] include the termination of diplomatic relations between China and the borrowing country among the events of default, which entitles the lender to demand immediate repayment.” This seems like an attempt to avoid defaults, rather than an attempt to cause them. I do think these clauses are evidence of willingness to exert influence over domestic policy, but it mostly seems like an effort to either insulate Chinese investments against shocks from significant policy changes (“protecting against policy changes,” as the authors call it) or preserve other Chinese investments in the region (“protecting Chinese economic interests, broadly defined”). 

This doesn’t mean the contracts aren’t concerning. In many cases, they genuinely are — making Paris Club restructuring efforts harder, for instance, has mired countries like Zambia in uncertainty about debt relief for years. But I don’t think this represents a very well-coordinated plot. Why? Because China’s development financing system is quite fragmented, rather than coordinated toward common political goals. 

Most of these projects, including their contracts, are undertaken by specific state-owned companies, like CMPort and the China Harbour Engineering Company. In theory, the Chinese government could order an SOE to take on a project for political purposes. But in practice, these SOEs often function in somewhat autonomous ways, as profit-seeking enterprises. 

Jones and Zou (2017) find that, since the late 1970s, the executive’s control over state-owned enterprises has weakened substantially, and relations between the state and SOEs are closer to “weak oversight” than purposeful direction from the center. Even the regulatory oversight over SOEs that does exist often struggles to be enforced. They point to the example of a dam project in Myanmar run by China Power Investment Corporation (CPI), which until 2015 was one of the five largest state-owned electricity producers in the mainland. Simply put, CPI routinely violated regulations and ignored warnings from the national government, including risk-mitigation measures it was directed to implement by the Finance Ministry, the requirement that “SOEs must consult China’s embassies in countries where they are considering projects,” and environmental protection laws, but the regulatory state was so fragmented, it struggled to stop these violations. This resulted in popular resentment against the dam project, significantly dampening Sino-Myanmar relations. While this is a bit of an extreme case, it illustrates the willingness of some Chinese SOEs to pursue profits without much oversight from the state. 

In the context of China’s overseas lending, Jones and Hameiri argue that SOEs do retain a lot of autonomy. For instance, they point to cases of SOEs refusing to build “flagship” projects for the Belt and Road Initiative in Romania and Pakistan when they can’t secure their desired margins. More broadly, even though SOE leaders are appointed by the state, “their performance is primarily evaluated against economic targets,” while the state agency that oversees SOEs is focused on maximizing the value of state assets. They further that these incentives also apply to the two main financiers of these projects, CDB and China Exim. If these institutions are operating with relative autonomy, aiming toward their own profits, or the regulatory state struggles to keep them on a very short leash, it seems harder to believe they’d be willing to sacrifice those profits to create geopolitical leverage for the Chinese state. 

On top of this, while there haven’t been many haircuts or write-offs for countries struggling to repay debt, there really has been a lot of rescheduling — of the 84 credit events Horn, Reinhart, and Trebesch found, in nearly all cases, China was happy to “kick the can down the road” by giving borrowers more time to repay the loan, much like Paris Club restructurings in the 1980s. This is another serious problem. When the Paris Club’s approach to restructuring just involved delaying payments, overindebted countries experienced sluggish growth. As the authors put it, “serial rescheduling would not resolve the debt overhang.” At the same time, it suggests that China isn’t eager for countries to default, or a massive beneficiary of defaults occurring, as the debt-trap diplomacy thesis might suggest. 

Many Chinese-backed infrastructure projects deserve scrutiny — for poor implementation and the frequency of major white elephants, the risks to macroeconomic stability posed by increasing debt and the relative lack of willingness to restructure by reducing said debt’s face value, and perhaps, in Africa’s case, for focusing too much on infrastructure. However, focusing on treating these projects as intentional debt traps is a non-starter.

Thanks to Elizabeth Li, Karthik Tadepalli, Kithmina Hewage, Pradyumna Prasad, Vivian Zhu, and Zi Cheng Huang for valuable comments, although this doesn’t necessarily reflect any of their views.

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