By Raffaello Pantucci
First published in the Financial Times Beyond BRICS, November 1, 2016
There has been much speculation on the role of the Silk Road Fund (SRF) and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in China’s outward investment push.
They are both instruments created by Beijing to provide economic firepower and bring international credibility to the ‘Belt and Road’ vision that has become President Xi Jinping’s keynote foreign policy concept. But in reality they have both undertaken a series of investments that, while substantial and linked to ‘Belt and Road’ countries, pale in size next to China’s overall outward investments.
While the AIIB has quite clearly been subsumed into the ‘Belt and Road’ project, the SRF has so far largely focused on commercial projects which are focused on profit rather than national strategy.
AIIB has so far made two sets of project announcements. The first were announced on June 24, 2016 and included a $165m loan for a power distribution project in Bangladesh, a $216.5m loan co-financed with the World Bank for a national slum upgrade in Indonesia, a $100m loan co-financed with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) to finance the Shorkot-Khanewal section of the M-4 motorway in Pakistan and a $27.5m loan for the Dushanbe-Uzbekistan Border Road Improvement Project in Tajikistan, co-financed with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).
A second set were announced in September, including a $300m loan for Tarbela 5 hydropower project in Pakistan, co-financed by the World Bank and a $20m loan to finance a 225 MW power plant in Myanmar, a project which is set to possibly receive a further $58m from the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and $42.2m from the Asia Development Bank (ADB).
Of these projects, the only one that is uniquely funded by the AIIB is the power grid project in Bangladesh. All of the others are co-financed, or more accurately, the AIIB has bought into existing projects. Another significant detail is that with the exception of the Indonesian project, all of the projects are ones that can be captured under the broader ‘Belt and Road’ vision – which has three principal strands pushing out across Eurasia: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM).
Of the $829m the bank has invested so far, $400m has been invested into projects which fit under CPEC, $27.5m into SREB, and $185m into projects which could fit under the BCIM.
In other words, almost 75 per cent of the AIIB’s first projects have been steered towards existing Chinese economic visions. And in many ways, the Indonesian project could also be captured under this banner, given the fact that Indonesia fits into the under-developed 21st Century Maritime Silk Road concept as well (and was the country in October 2016 that Xi announced the concept in the first place).
There is very little distance between the AIIB and Beijing’s ‘Belt and Road.’ And in fact, the parts of the ‘Belt and Road’ it is feeding are those parts which are going to ultimately have a resonance on China’s most under-developed regions that are the ultimate focus of the ‘Belt and Road.’ It is therefore hard, on the basis of its first projects, not to consider the bank as a tool of the ‘Belt and Road’ rather than a new independent financial institution advancing general regional development goals.
The Silk Road Fund is a more obvious tool than the AIIB. With a total capital of $40bn, the first $10bn was made up with money from the Chinese State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE), which accounted for 65 per cent of the initial funds, Export-Import Bank (accounting for 15 per cent), China Development Bank (accounting for 5 per cent) and the China Investment Corporation (accounting for 15 per cent).
Established specifically to ‘promote common development and prosperity of China and the other countries and regions involved in the Belt and Road Initiative,’ the Fund is a commercial entity that is focused on projects that will generate returns.
Having laid out this logic, the Fund’s first investments have followed these principles, starting with an investment of $1.65bn in April 2015 to build the Karot hydropower project in North East Pakistan.
In September 2015 it announced it would purchase 9.9 per cent of the Russian Yamal liquefied gas field for $1.2bn, and more recently it was revealed it had explored putting almost $2bn into buying Glencore’s Vasilkovskoye gold mine in Kazakhstan.
It ultimately lost that deal to another pair of Chinese buyers. Outside these obvious ‘Belt and Road’ deals, the Fund has also invested in ChemChina to purchase Italian tire maker Pirelli, invested $100m into the China International Capital Corp (CICC) a state investment bank that prior to its initial public offering (IPO) in November 2015 was seen as taking losses internationally, and finally pledging some $300m to the IPO of China Energy Engineering Corp (CEEC) an international power plant construction firm.
To understand the ‘Belt and Road’ logic of the CEEC-Silk Road Fund investment, it is instructive to look at Mr Xi’s visit to Serbia in June 2016, seven months after the IPO announcement. Mr Xi was present at the signing of an MOU between the CEEC, the Silk Road Fund, China Environmental Energy Investment Ltd and the Serbian Ministry of Energy and Mining. The MoU laid the foundations for CEEC to undertake further energy projects in Serbia, joining already advanced CEEC projects in Lithuania and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Taken as a whole, the Silk Road Fund is a heavier investor in ‘Belt and Road’ projects than AIIB. While the AIIB’s announced deals add up to $829m, the SRF’s amount to at least $3.25bn (not including the Pirelli deal, the exact numbers of which are not immediately available). In addition, the Fund has been reported as considering an investment of between €5-10bn into the European Fund for Strategic Investments, or the so-called Juncker Plan.
But all of this pales next to China’s overall outward investment numbers. The Ministry of Commerce announced outward investment last year at $145.67bn and EY, a consultancy, has predicted that this year’s total will surpass $170bn.
Taken against this background, the SRF and AIIB are clearly minnows. But they are minnows which have focused on national interest, something that highlights the degree to which the broader ‘Belt and Road’ is aimed at advancing national interest rather than being a benevolent vision for Eurasia.
It also illustrates to outsiders that to properly understand how to connect with the ‘Belt and Road’, there is a need to understand China’s broader international ambitions under the vision.
Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at RUSI, a think tank based in London.