What do investments in engineering companies, banks and bananas have in common? They’re all justified by China’s “One Belt, One Road” plan to boost trade and spread soft power. Yet early signs are the scheme may provide another excuse to shuffle money and favours between state companies.
President Xi Jinping envisions the People’s Republic at the nexus of global trade, with a “belt” of trade routes across central and southern Asia connecting China with new markets, and a maritime channel – confusingly known as a “road” – centred on Chinese ports.
China is backing its vision with hefty investment: it has set up a $40 billion Silk Road Fund and was the driving force behind the new $50 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Chinese policy banks will provide further financial muscle to build infrastructure and invest in foreign businesses from Pakistani power plants to Malaysian banana plantations.
But investments in foreign countries take time and diplomatic wrangling. So in the meantime China’s new funds are likely to take the easier step of investing in state-owned enterprises. This allows them to observe the letter of the slogan while ignoring the spirit of extending China’s international financial reach.
Potential recipients of state cash are therefore dutifully incorporating “One Belt, One Road” into their policies. It will likely be a neat trick to justify state-owned company expansion plans or dust off mothballed provincial projects.
To date, the Silk Road Fund has invested in a power plant in Pakistan and helped fund the acquisition of Italian tyre-maker Pirelli. It also invested $300m in the Hong Kong initial public offering of power plant builder China Energy Engineering Corp, which sold 70 percent of its $1.8 billion equity issue to state-owned cornerstone investors. The Silk Road Fund also backed the IPO of China International Capital Corp, the investment banking group.
Other investors have jumped on the bandwagon. A Cayman Islands-registered entity named Belt and Road Investment backed the recent IPO of Bank of Qingdao, the lender based in the coastal city famed for its beer.
President Xi’s vision may eventually open up new markets for China. For now though, it will also provide financial cover for bureaucrats whose main ambition is to curry favour with their superiors.
This view is a Breakingviews prediction for 2016. Click here to see more predictions.