The international financial system is dominated by the US. Washington has often used its clout in the international financial system to further its economic and geopolitical interests through financial sanctions. As antagonism between the US and China moves beyond trade and technology, how the US-China rivalry will play out in the new stage of international finance is a matter of great concern to the world.
China has been working on a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) since 2014, and is intensifying its efforts to internationalise the Renminbi.
On the surface it appears the CBDC will be for domestic use, but a CBDC will simplify cross border transactions. For a long time, the country has been dissatisfied with the U.S. Dollar’s (USD) ongoing role as the global reserve currency and is committed to extending its currency’s reach.
It even has an initiative to denominate international trade credit in Renminbi (RMB) rather than dollars. And the Belt and Road Initiative has seen China extend more than $1 trillion in foreign loans.
At a recent online global seminar organised by the Pangoal Institution China and the Centre for New Inclusive Asia Malaysia, experts from China, Russia, Europe and the US deliberated and disussed the issue.
He addressed China’s vulnerability to the global financial system, and said:
“This is a very interesting question as there are a lot of factors to consider. To begin, I think it might be helpful to define China’s vulnerabilities specifically. We are speaking about international finance here (it’s a very complex and politically charged system) and since the second world war, the space has been more or less dominated by the interests of the US. We see this in the global dominance that the US dollar has held for the last 70 years. We see that in the steps that Washington has taken to ensure that the dollar acts as the global reserve currency - particularly in industries like the global oil trade. Up until quite recently, it was probably difficult to even imagine a global financial system that was not directly supported by the US dollar.
By virtue of this global reliance, the American political machine was given significant power to wield in international finance. The best evidence of this can probably be found in the history of crippling economic sanctions that the US has enacted against specific states - the impacts of which can be devastating. In a nutshell, it’s an asymmetrical power dynamic wherein the US has carved out a significant negotiating advantage over other countries.
Put it this way: when the global economic system is built to fit the domestic currency of a specific state, it is easy to see how that state would be able to tailor certain policies and promote behaviours that would further their own geopolitical interests - this has been the American reality for the last few decades.
But things change. Technology advances, political relationships evolve, and international trade and money flows continue to expand and grow - now incorporating more people, countries and businesses than ever before. All of these factors (economic, political, technological, societal) work to shape the reality of the international order, and we are now at a place where a serious discussion about a replacement for the US dollar is warranted - that’s why I am excited to be here speaking about this issue today, it’s really time to have the conversation.
So, now that we have set the scene, let’s tackle the question: could the creation of a digital Renminbi address the vulnerability and asymmetry that China is dealing with in international finance? I really don’t think this is a simple yes or no answer here, in fact I think it is valuable to consider the question with a broad outlook on development over the next few years.
Starting with the short term, let’s put the question like this: will the digital renminbi have significant impact internationally immediately following launch. The answer here I think is no, and there are a few reasons for that. First of all, let’s consider the intention of the issuer, the Chinese central bank. Reports show that the initial focus of the DRMB project is domestic, the Chinese government is looking to challenge private sector digital payment methods like AliPay etc., and getting the broader population used to the idea of Central Bank-issued digital currencies powering the majority of economic transactions in the country. To put it simply, the scope of the first stage of the DRMB launch is too small and domestically focused to directly impact the international system - there just won’t be enough DRMB in circulation globally.
There is another point to consider in the short-term: voluntary acceptance. Even if stage one of the DRMB project did have an international focus and was committed to minting huge amounts of digital currency, international impact requires international use - meaning that other countries would have to voluntarily accept and support the project in the early stages. How likely is this to happen? Well it’s a bit of a mixed bag, we’ve seen a few agreements start to pop-up between China and some countries in Central Asia as well as South Korea and Russia, which outline future frameworks for DRMB acceptance and trade, however there isn’t too much in place yet. And that’s just it: before the DRMB can have international impact, there needs to be widespread international access and acceptance, and I don’t see that happening in the short-term.
Let’s move to a mid-term analysis. So imagine that phase 1 of the DRMB is complete and we have individuals and corporations in China accepting, transacting and trading it. What will phase 2 look like? I think we will start to see China expanding the scope of the DRMB project and incorporating it into their international development and infrastructure projects. If we consider the scope of the Belt and Road Initiative and China’s commitments and focus on development and investment across central Asia, Europe and parts of Africa, it is clear that there are many opportunities to promote and incentivize use of the DRMB internationally.
A great example to consider is the group of countries that make up the Silk Road area (about 70 countries). China is participating in infrastructure projects here, but it is also promoting increased trade in the area - and that means a lot of money moving cross-border. This is actually an area that my company LGR Crypto Bank is focused on - our goal is to make cross-border payments and trade finance transparent, fast and secure - and in an area with over 70 different currencies and incredibly disparate compliance requirements, this is not always an easy task.
Here is precisely where I think the DRMB could add a lot of value - in clearing up the confusion and opacity that comes with cross-border money movement and complex trade finance transactions. I believe that one way the DRMB will be marketed to China’s trade and development partners is a way to bring transparency and speed in complicated transactions and international transfers. These are real problems, especially in the multi-commodity trade business, and they can cause serious delays and business interruptions- If the Chinese government can prove that adoption of the DRMB will address these issues, then I think we will see real eagerness in the market.
At LGR Global, we are already researching, modelling and designing our own money movement and trade finance platforms to work in harmony with digital currencies, particularly our own Silk Road Coin and the Digital Renminbi - we are ready to offer customers the best in class finance options as soon as they are made available.
When it comes to the international stage, I think that China will use its BRI as a proving ground for the DRMB in real-world commerce. By doing this, they will start to develop a network of DRMB acceptance across the Silk Road Countries and will be able to point to successful infrastructure projects as proof of the success of the Digital Renminbi. If this phase is carried out properly, I think it will create a very good foundation of DRMB acceptance that can be built on and expanded globally. The next step would likely be Europe - this is something of a natural extension of the Silk Road Area, and also ties in to the reality of increased trade between the EU and China. It’s important to note that if we consider all of the domestic economies that make up the Euro block together, it is the largest importer/exporter in the world- it would be an incredible opportunity for China to bring international attention to the DRMB and prove its capabilities in the West.
In the long-term, I do think that it is possible for the DRMB to gain high levels of international traction and achieve some level of global acceptance. Again, it will all depend on the success of the Chinese government in making the case for adoption throughout the earlier phases. The value propositions of central bank digital currencies are very clear (increased transaction speed, improved transparency, fewer middlemen, less delays, etc.), and China is certainly not the only one developing such an asset. Currently, however, China is a leader and if they can execute an expansion plan without too many issues along the way, this head-start could make it difficult for other state offerings to catch-up. Maybe not, though.
It could be that in the long-term, all states will have a sovereign digital currency - and this begs the question: in the age of digital currencies, is there still a need for a global reserve currency? I’m not sure. What would the value add be of a reserve currency when central bank digital currencies could be traded effortlessly with immediate settlement times? Maybe reserve currencies will simply become a relic of an outdated financial system.
Looking forward to the long-term, I can imagine 2 scenarios where the DRMB could alleviate China’s vulnerabilities in the international financial system:
- The DRMB becomes the new world reserve currency
- The notion of a world reserve currency becomes obsolete and the new economic order runs on state-backed digital currencies operating without a hierarchy.
Whatever happens, I do believe we are on the cusp of a major change in global finance. There is no doubt that digital currencies, specifically central bank digital currencies, will play a massive role in defining the new economic paradigm. I believe that China is making great moves in leading the pack on this, and I know that at LGR Global we look forward to adopting the DRMB where we can to further optimize and expedite the money movement and trade finance solutions that we offer to our customers.
China-EU relations face challenges, Xi tells Germany's Merkel
President Xi Jinping told German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday (7 April) that he saw “various challenges” in relations between China and the European Union and hoped the EU could “independently” make correct judgements, a Chinese government statement said, writes Michael Nienaber in Berlin.
The statement quoted Xi as saying during a phone call that the EU and China should respect each other and “eliminate interference”, adding that China is willing to work with the global community to promote “fair and reasonable distribution” of COVID-19 vaccines and opposes vaccine nationalism.
Last month, the EU imposed its first significant sanctions against Chinese officials since 1989 over alleged human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region. Beijing, which denies the allegations, hit back by blacklisting some EU lawmakers and entities.
The United States, Britain and Canada also sanctioned Chinese officials over Xinjiang, and the row threatens to derail an EU-China investment pact agreed in late 2020 after years of negotiations.
German government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said Merkel and Xi had discussed international efforts to produce and distribute COVID-19 vaccines, deepen economic cooperation and steps to protect the climate and biodiversity.
She said the leaders agreed to deepen bilateral ties in Sino-German government consultations planned for late April.
“The Chancellor stressed the importance of dialogue on the full range of ties, including issues on which there are different opinions,” Demmer said, without giving details of the areas where Germany and China differ.
The Belt and Road in Italy: Two years later
On 23 March 2019, Italy officially became part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Two years since the first G-7 country became part of the controversial Chinese project, it is time to make an initial assessment of Italy’s highly contested membership in the BRI, writes Francesca Ghiretti.
Three important elements, two external and one internal, have been fundamental in shaping the development of the BRI in Italy. The two exogenous elements are the increasing tensions between the China and the United States, and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The former has translated into more U.S. engagement with Europe, including Italy, to secure alignment in policies toward China. A sample result of this effort was the cancellation of a potential collaboration between the Italian Space Agency (ISA) and China National Space Administration (CNSA) to build habitational modules for the Chinese space station Tiangong 3. Another result, which falls in line with steps taken in other EU countries, regards changes that curtail the possibility of Huawei participating in development of the Italian 5G network.
Admittedly, neither example cited above directly relates to the Memorandum of Understanding signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Italy in March 2019. However, both are examples of a change of Italy’s position toward collaboration with Chinese entities, whether public or private, following pressure from the United States. The collaboration regarding the Chinese space station, interestingly, was abandoned soon after March 2019.
The second external element is the outbreak of COVID-19. Last year was meant to be very important for the relationship between Italy and China. In 2020, Italy and China celebrated the 50th anniversary of their diplomatic relationship and were meant to celebrate the Year of Tourism Italy-China, now postponed to 2022. A line-up of events and celebrations had been organized for both, which had to be cancelled amid the pandemic. Furthermore, as the first year after the signing of the MoU, 2020 should have seen the initial materialization of the agreements signed on the occasion of Xi’s state visit. It is difficult to say whether in the absence of the pandemic, most of the BRI-related agreements would have materialized, but it can be confidently stated that without the pandemic we would have witnessed further developments. In fact, even with the pandemic, a series of deals materialized, and a limited number of new ones were reached, although mostly among private actors, at least on the Italian side.
The internal element shaping the BRI’s development in Italy is the numerous changes to the Italian government in the past two years. When the MoU for the BRI was signed, Italy was governed by a populist coalition formed by the Five-Star Movement (5SM) and the far-right League. The latter would rediscover its transatlantic call shortly before Xi’s state visit. Within this coalition, a mixture of rejection of Italy’s traditional alliances, Euro-skepticism, naïveté, and interests that pointed in favor of China led to the decision to sign the MoU. In September 2019, however, that government was replaced by a new coalition, which saw the 5SM being joined by the mainstream center-left Democratic Party (PD). The prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, remained the same.
The new coalition did not necessarily have a less favorable view of China. Historically, Italy’s left has cultivated very positive relations with China. However, it adopted a less sensationalistic approach and placed Italy back into its traditional alliance systems. Notably, after September 2019, Italy adopted a very European approach in its dealings with China. Italy quietly maintained a rather positive relationship with China, while joining with the other EU countries in occasional critiques of China, and, as already mentioned, adopting a response to 5G similar to its fellow Europeans: excluding Huawei without imposing a blanket ban.
At the beginning of 2021, Italy underwent another change of government. It is now led by Mario Draghi and is even more embedded in Italy’s traditional alliances than the previous government. Given that this government has not been in power long, the assessments that will be made here mostly relate to the government of Conte II, when the 5SM governed with PD.
Keeping in mind what has so far been said, the examples that follow will show that the great majority of MoUs signed between Italy and China were either an expression of intentions that were rarely materialized or the consolidation of an already established relationship.
A notable lack of materialization can be found in the MoUs signed between the port of Genoa and the port of Trieste with China Communications Construction Company (CCCC). In brief, so far, there has been a lack of developments in the collaborations in this sector and it seems there will not be any in the future. The new BRI terminal of Vado Ligure, near Genoa, is the result of an agreement that long predates the MoU of March 2019. It dates back to the creation of the joint venture APM Terminals Vado Ligure Spa back in 2016. Furthermore, the joint venture does not involve of CCCC, the signatory of the MoU, but of COSCO and Qingdao Port. In other words, so far, the only development in the maritime sector linked to the BRI involves a project that is not part of the MoUs of March 2019.
Another example is the collaboration between the Italian Space Agency and the China National Space Administration for the mission “China Seismo-Electromegnatic Satellite 02” (CSES-02). This project is also predated the signing of the MoUs. It represents phase two of an already ongoing collaboration between ISA and CNSA on CSES-01. The collaboration in the energy sector between Ansaldo Energia and both China United Gas Turbine Technology Co. and Shanghai Electric Power Corp. was also established before 2019. Other examples of already existing relationships that were formalized by signing MoUs in March 2019 are those of Cassa Depositi and Prestiti, Eni and Intesa San Paolo with Chinese counterparts such as Bank of China and the city of Qingdao.
Some successful developments of the MoUs have been the restitution of 796 archaeological artifacts from Italy to China, which occurred in March 2019. There was also collaboration between the Italian Trade Agency (ITA) and the Alibaba Group for the creation in 2020 of an online Made in Italy Pavilion for Business to Business (B2B) commerce. Finally, one notable successful MoU has been that between the Italian news agency Ansa and its Chinese counterpart Xinhua. Despite the relationship again predating March 2019, it was only after March 2019 that news from Xinhua translated in Italian began to appear on the website of Ansa, labelled as Xinhua News.
All in all, Italy has undeniably witnessed the developments of many of the MoUs signed in March 2019. However, as anticipated, most of the MoUs were the result of collaboration that already existed before 2019 and thus, arguably, Italy would have witnessed the same type of developments even without joining the BRI, with some exceptions. Furthermore, if the BRI is analyzed uniquely as a connectivity and infrastructure project, then only a handful of the examples presented above can be considered as being part of the BRI.
However, the mere fact that alongside the signing of the BRI MoU, other MoUs belonging to diverse sectors were also signed means that not only for China, but also for Italy, the BRI is about a lot more than just connectivity. The BRI is a way to frame the relationship between a country and China. In both cases, one can easily say that yes, the BRI has not been as successful as one would have thought, in Italy and elsewhere. But it is not dead. Authors
Francesca Ghiretti is a research fellow at Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), where she specializes in the Italy-China relationship, Europe-China relationship and Chinese foreign policy. She is a Leverhulme doctoral fellow at King’s College London, looking at Chinese FDI in the EU.
China: Bomb attack in Mingjing kills 5
A man detonated a homemade bomb blowing up four other people besides himself in Mingjing, a small village in Guangzhou on 22 March. Jeimian, a news website, shared a video of the aftermath, a destroyed office, with blood splattered on the walls and at least two people motionless on the ground.
The Guangzhou Panyu Security Bureau confirmed the bomb blast on its Weibo account. Investigations into the explosion are still ongoing. Xinhua, China’s news agency, described the blast as an ‘act of sabotage’, while several others are attributing it to an ongoing dispute due to the forcible land grab by the government that is causing hardship to the residents. Meanwhile, the blast was claimed online by a pro-TIP telegram channel. The message indicated the blast as the result of the oppression of the Uyghurs by China. It urged more attacks on government buildings and officials across China. The message ended with a shout out call to all Uyghurs to make their voices heard.
However, this is not the first time such a blast has happened in Guangzhou. In 2013, a similar blast had happened in a storehouse for shoe-making materials, in Baiyun district, killing 4 people and injuring 36. The coercion of Uyghurs is causing a lot of resentment and the brunt of this resentment has been borne by Beijing (2013) and Kunming (2014) as well.
Guangzhou has been witness to several such incidents which have highlighted the simmering resistance in the society. Guangzhou is a commercial hub and hosts a lot of industries. The labour in these industries is sourced from Xinjiang. This serves the twin purpose of changing the demography of Xinjiang and providing for cheap captive labour. Studies have pointed out that between 2017-2019 alone, 80,000 Uyghurs have been relocated from Xinjiang to other parts of China. Footage of these Uyghurs being transported to remote parts of China as forced labour (CBN News, Channel 4 News, BBC) confirms this. The policy involves a high degree of coercion and is designed to assimilate minorities by changing their lifestyles.
Guangzhou by virtue of being an industrial hub has afforded more opportunities for the expression of this angst. Guangzhou hosts a large number of people from Africa and Middle East, who demand halal meat. This is provided by ethnic Uyghur restaurants in the city. The increasing crackdown on Islam in China initially forced these restaurants remove the Arabic signage’s, which brought a dip in their business. Added to this was the ousting of foreigners by the Chinese government to rein in the corona virus spread has resulted in hardships to these Uyghur eateries.
The forced relocation and the restrictive employment opportunities have added to the frustration of the Uyghur minority. This oppression has formed the bulk of the propaganda for Uyghur militant groups such as TIP. Last year, the TIP chief Abdul Haq Turkistani, had appealed to the Taliban and Al Qaeda to support the Uyghur cause. It is not surprising that inspired by the success of the Taliban, the Uyghurs are emboldened to stand up for their rights. A pro-TIP telegram channel claimed the blast as retribution for the injustices met out to the Uyghurs. It further warned of similar attacks across China.
The growing restlessness and insecurity amongst the Uyghur is a cause for concern. Irrespective of the justification and success stories that the government peddles to support its education camps, the fact remains that denying the Uyghurs right to religion and freedom of expression is not only a violation of the Chinese constitution, it is also repression of the human rights. The government will have to rework its policy and ideate on a more heterogeneous approach to the issue.
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