Song Seeks To Open Diplomatic Doors In North Korea

Song Tao, head of the International Department of the Communist Party of China, seen in Moscow in March 2017.

THE PARTY, NOT the government runs China’s relations with North Korea. As head of the Party’s international department, Song Tao (above) is about as senior as it gets in regards to dealing with Pyongyang.

His four-day visit to North Korea is purportedly to brief North Korean party officials on the outcome of the Chinese Communist Party’s recently concluded 19th Party Congress. If he does, it will be, no doubt, be to reiterate the part in General Secretary Xi Jinping’s work report that implied that China is still more than a quarter of a century from military parity with the United States, and, by extension, that if Kim Jong-un thinks he can take on the United States in a war and win, he better think again.

Beijing certainly does want any hostilities on its doorstep. Stability is its primary goal in the nuclear standoff in the Korean peninsula. Kim will not stop his nuclear missiles programme until he has the deterrent that will ensure the continuation of his regime. Washington, for its part, is determined that he will not reach that point.

The only conceivable compromise that will lower tension on the peninsula is for China and the United States to accept that North Korea will develop long-range nuclear weapons (as they have) and work to draw it into the international arrangements that prevent those weapons being used in anger.

Although there has been no mention of it in state media, Song may have met Kim on Sunday with the likely aim of ‘opening the door’ to some semblance of diplomatic exchanges involving Washington and Pyongyang. Beijing thinks the most promising avenue for those would be around a trade-off of North Korea suspending its nuclear and missile tests in return for the suspension of large-scale US-South Korean military exercises.

Song’s trip comes just a week after the Beijing leg of US President Donald Trump five-nation Asia tour. Trump pressed China to do more to rein in North Korea. China, however, does not have as much sway over Pyongyang as Washington seems to believe, though it has more than it will publicly admit.

It has, however, been tougher on sanctions against North Korea than its previous track record in this regard would have led one to expect, and it is strictly enforcing the UN-imposed sanctions on imports of coal, iron ore and seafood from North Korea as well as shutting down banking links.

What effect this is having is difficult to ascertain in any detail, although all the reports reaching us suggest that the economy is being squeezed hard. It had grown by 3.9% in 2016, partly on baseline effects caused by the previous year’s drought, partly because of higher military spending and partly because more entrepreneurial activity had been allowed.

Growth likely slowed from that last year and may be barely 1% this, renewed drought exacerbating the impact of sanctions. In July, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said it was the worst drought since 2001 and that food security would worsen, requiring cereal imports.

A North Korean bulk carrier, the Km Dae, has been making regular trips over the past few months (five since late June) from Nampho to the port of Yingkou, one of six ports ostensibly closed to North Korean shipping. Nampho is the port North Korea has in the past used to receive international food aid. What the vessel was carrying in either direction is unknown, though there are some reports that it docked at a berth in Yingkou used for the coal trade.

Another mystery is why North Korea has not conducted a missile or nuclear test for two months. During that time China has held its Party Congress and Trump has visited Asia, two events that on past experience Kim would have latched on to make some noise.

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China And Zimbabwe: No Great Change In The Weather

WHATEVER WORD IS is used to describe the process of separating Zimbabwe’s long-serving president, Robert Mugabe, from power, China will have lost a long-standing political friend on the continent.

True, it may not cry too many tears over that, though it does like to be loyal to old comrades. But even Beijing will recognise that the 93-year old corrupt autocrat trying to establish a dynastic succession to his 52-year-old wife Grace is not the same man as the Marxist anti-colonialist they befriend as a young man.

However, Mugabe was an important champion for China in Africa after the Sino-Soviet split in 1960 and China trained and funded his Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) fighters when they were still a liberation movement.

Mugabe had visited Beijing as recently as last January, returning a state visit to Zimbabwe by President Xi Jinping in December 2015, on which occasion Xi described the two nations were “real all-weather friends.”

A high-level visit to Beijing between November 8 and November 10 by Zimbabwe’s army chief, General Constantine Chiwenga, only shortly before he and fellow generals moved against Mugabe, is raising some speculative questions. This Bystander doubts if there was a Chinese hand behind ousting Mugabe. If anything, a western one seems more probable.

Nonetheless, Chiwenga  who met both the PLA’s head of the joint chiefs of staff, Li Zuocheng, and defence minister Chang Wanquan, may have felt it important to inform Beijing of his intentions, given the close relations between the countries. Or it may have been a long-planned visit that would have looked suspicious to cancel at the last minute.

China has taken a neutral stance on events since, saying:

As a friendly country to Zimbabwe, we are closely following the situation unfolding in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe’s peace, stability, and development serve the fundamental interests of the country itself and other regional countries. It is also the common wish of the international community. We hope that Zimbabwe could properly handle its internal affairs.

State media has given prominence to voices calling for a stable transition of power.

If you follow the money, as this Bystander likes to do, you will see that Zimbabwe has as not been a recipient of Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) on anything like scale the friendship between the two countries would suggest. Xi during his 2015 visit pledged $4 billion of grants and loans over three years, part of a $60 billion package for the whole of Africa. That year, the figure had been $600m out of a total $929 million of FDI that Zimbabwe attracted.

That should be contrasted to the $2 billion that China invested in neighbouring Zambia . The Chinese investment in the struggling Zimbabwean economy has been going into power-generation infrastructure and agriculture, notably tobacco growing.

Total trade between the two countries is tiny: less than $400 million of Chinese exports to Zimbabwe, mostly machinery and equipment, some $720 million of imports, mostly tobacco, in 2016.  Zimbabwe barely makes the top 30 of China’s trading partners in Africa.

Mugabe may have been an old friend, but China has not been throwing much good money after bad in that particular direction for some time.

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A President At Court

Donald Trump seen in Washington, November 2011. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore. Licenced under Creative Commons

IT IS THE time US President Donald Trump spends in Beijing that will be the most critical part of his more-than-weeklong tour of five Asian countries that he started this weekend.

To the other four countries on his itinerary — Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines — he will offer some measure of assurance that the United States’ traditional security guarantees to the region can be squared with his ‘America First’ economic nationalism.

Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP), a cornerstone of his predecessor Barack Obama’s ‘Asian pivot’, has been deeply felt with some concern across the region. Nowhere less so than in Japan, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had invested considerable political capital in TPP and must now still assume the role of the principal regional counterweight to China.

The Trump administration is increasingly referring to the region as the Indo-Pacific, not Asia-Pacific, to diminish the Asia part, which to most Americans implies Chinese. The two regions are not the same to a geologist or marine biologist,  but the co-option of the term by geopolitical strategists is blurring the distinction. However, it will take more than rebranding to assuage Asian allies’ anxieties.

In Beijing, the mood will be very different. Trump will be pampered and feted at the court of ‘the King of China’, to use Trump’s phrase. The US businessmen accompanying the US president will sign multi-billion dollar sales deals that will help to diminish China’s trade surplus with the United States, but in designated sectors, notably energy, of Beijing’s not the free-market’s choosing.

Discussions about North Korea have potential to be contentious, but Trump may well find himself an uncharacteristically restrained guest as Xi holds to China’s ‘dual approach’ line and stresses the need to get all parties back to the negotiating table.

Most of all Beijing will project the visit of a meeting of two superpowers, who will jointly “map out a blueprint for the development of bilateral ties in a new era”, as Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zequang puts it. China-America First, perhaps, but every photo opportunity will be carefully used to convey which of the two leaders is the great draftsman.

It is a formula that worked well for China when Xi visited Washington in January. On these trips, the optics are as, if not more important than the outcomes.

As soon as Trump has departed Beijing, Xi will head to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Danang in Vietnam. Trump, too, will be there, and the allies and adversaries on both sides will make their judgements about which of the two superpowers will figure most prominently in their lives.

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One Belt, One Road To Rule Them All

Belt and Road International Forum, Beijing, May 2017. Photo credit: The Russian Presidential Press and Information Office. Licensed under Creative Commons.IT IS NOT just General Secretary Xi Jinping’s ‘Thought’ that has been inscribed in the Party’s constitution. So, too, has his grand vision and signature policy, the Belt and Road Initiative, or OBOR for its original designation, One Belt One Road.

This will give political longevity to the ambitious scheme Xi announced in 2013 to transverse the Eurasia landmass and beyond with a network of roads, railways, ports, pipelines and other infrastructure projects carrying China’s surplus industrial and services capacity westwards and food and energy resources in the opposite direction. Opposing or obstructing it, just as with opposing or obstructing Xi, will henceforth equate with betraying the Party itself.

Few, if any infrastructure projects can boast either such prestige or protection. As Xi indicated at the Party Congress just concluded, OBOR will be central to China’s development until at least 2050, the date Xi has set by which China is to be a leading global power (neatly coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1, 1949).

So great is the ambition of this combination of commerce, construction and capital that it is impossible to put an accurate cost or timetable on it.

Bloomberg counts more than $500 million the China has so far spent or committed to OBOR. There is a $40 billion Silk Road Fund and much of the $100 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) will be directed towards it. No doubt some of the $300 billion National Pension Fund will find its way to OBOR projects as will investment from state-owned banks and enterprises and dutifully patriotic private companies.

The US investment bank Morgan Stanley has suggested that $1.2 trillion will be spent on OBOR-related infrastructure over the next decade. However, so loosely is it defined and so ambitious its scope that you can just about put any price tag on it, as long as it is in the many trillions.

Beijing lists 68 countries as OBOR partners spanning Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Oceania. They already account for one-third of global GDP and trade, two-thirds of the population and one-quarter of global foreign direct investment. The management consultancy McKinsey & Co.reckons they will contribute 80% of global economic growth and add 3 billion to the global middle class by 2050. Any number is going to be large.

For all the trillions of dollars of hard infrastructure that will be built — and as we have noted before, if even only a fraction of what is being talked about gets completed, it will still be huge — OBOR is also a geopolitical project. Whether you see that as 21st-century merchant hegemony writ large or the world’s largest platform for regional collaboration and future engine of trade and investment growth, there can be little argument that it will potentially give Beijing vast sway over a large part of the world.

It is a part of the world with lots of risks, however, both geopolitical and financial. One measure of both is that state-owned insurer China Export & Credit Insurance Corp. said it has paid out $1.7 billion in claims since 2013 on $480 billion of exports and investments it has insured in OBOR countries. The sort of risks the insurer covers are things like government seizures, nationalisation and political violence.

More than half of China’s outward OBOR investment since 2013 has been in countries whose sovereign credit rating is below investment grade — ‘junk’ in the jargon. Of the 68 OBOR countries, only 27 of them are not rated as junk.

It is easy to assume that the Chinese state and its own and private (and dutifully patriotic) companies will be pouring a lot of good money after bad. However, many of the OBOR countries have trade and growth potential that can be released by infrastructure development, especially on the scale and interconnectedness envisaged. That would generate some of the growth necessary to provide some return on the investment.

It will also give China a huge sphere of influence far beyond its near abroad, in which today’s superpowers will be marginalised.

The ‘America First’ economic and political nationalism of the Trump administration, which has caused the stalling of the TransPacific Partnership (TPP) and disengaged the ‘Asian pivot’ of its predecessor Obama administration, has given Beijing an unexpected window of opportunity to advance OBOR and its alternative arrangements to those that have governed the international order in the era since World War II.

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No Change At The Top

Members of the Politburo standing committee elected October 2017

THE QUINQUENNIAL CONGRESS of the Chinese Communist Party has, by recent convention, set the course of the Party’s future leadership. The 19th, just concluded, is no exception. The future leadership of the Party is for the foreseeable future, general secretary Xi Jinping.

Two signs of Xi’s sway are, first, that his ‘Thought’ has been written into the Party’s constitution by name. That not only elevates him to the level of Mao Zedong but makes any challenge to his authority a challenge to the Party as a whole. Second, he has been able to avoid installing a Politburo Standing Committee — the seven men (and it is all men, as seen above) at the apex of Chinese affairs — that contains any obvious successor.

That may be his most important achievement of all at the Congress. It avoids him being seen as a lame duck during the second of his two five-year terms as president, and leaves him the most flexibility in putting in place whatever arrangements he wishes for when that five years are up.

His options then are:

  • to hand over the presidency to a loyalist who would perform the role as a ceremonial head of state (like a queen in a constitutional monarchy) while he exercises executive power from a post such as Party general secretary or head of the military commission (as Jiang Zemin did);
  • to ensure that a hand-picked successor takes over the presidency and general secretary positions while he exercises control for behind the scenes as ‘core leader’ (as Deng Xiaoping did as ‘paramount leader’). That successor would be promoted from the Politburo without the customary five-year preparation period of being on the standing committee, though, as that is meant to be a time for the successor to establish his authority, that would not be needed as the authority would stay with Xi anyway;
  • or he could baldly amend the national constitution to allow himself to continue as President for a third term.

In the meantime, Xi will embark on his second term with a Politburo standing committee that contains some allies but no fierce opponents, and all of an age at which they can have no expectation of taking the top job before they retire.

Five of the seven members of the previous standing committee have retired, leaving Xi and prime minister Li Keqiang as the only two carryovers. Among the newcomers, the two most important factions within the Party, Jiang’s Shanghai faction and the Communist Youth League of Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, have got places at that highest of high tables, notably Han Zheng for the Shanghai group and Wang Yang for the Youth League, which can also count Li. But both factions have been considerably weakened by Xi’s anti-corruption-cum-political-purge campaign.

To say that Xi has established his own faction may be over egging the pudding. If he is at the centre of one it is the amorphous group known as princelings, which has many cross-overs with other groupings.

However, jockeying for power is part of the warp and weft of China’s elite politics. Xi now has two firm allies. One is his former chief of staff and long-standing associate, Li Zhanshu, who will head the rubberstamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, in which role he would be critical if Xi did want to amend the natonal constitution to permit a third term as president. The other is the former head of the Party’s Organisation Department, Zhao Leji, who will head the Central Discipline Inspection Commission in succession to Wang Qishan, who led the anti-corruption operations that were instrumental in consolidating Xi’s power.

Yet, apart from supporting Xi, the overriding characteristics of the new standing committee, however, is experience and competence. These are people who know how to run a large operations as well as operate at the highest levels of the Party.

Xi also knows the importance of snuffing out factional struggles. In Hu’s last term, Xi and Hu spared over how quickly the outgoing president would successively yield his Party, state and military offices as he attempted to cement his legacy and power behind the throne.

Below the standing committee, the 25-member Politburo is broadly pro-Xi. The same can be said for the 200-member Central Committee beneath them.

Perhaps most critically, Xi loyalists now control all the key provinces and provincial-level municipalities that matter — Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, Chongqing and Tianjin, for example, and those where the could be unrest, notably Xinjiang. The mountains may be high and the emperor far away, as the old proverb has it, but Xi has his loyalists in place to ensure there is no repeat of city bosses like the disgraced Bo Xilai and his recently purged successor Sun Zhengcai getting uppity.

Our man in Davos sent word of how he remembered seeing a somewhat hesitant Xi being unveiled to the world at a World Economic Forum meeting a decade or so back and contrasted that with the assured, commanding figure that was seen at the 19th Party Congress. This Bystander also remembers some words penned here about Xi back in 2012 just ahead of the 18th Party Congress that would bring him to power:

Cunning, calculating and ambitious Xi plays politics like a chameleon playing poker.

He has played a winning hand, and still holds most of the aces.

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China Looks To Make A Razor-Sharp Deal For Saudi Aramco

Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli (L) meets with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Aug. 24, 2017. Photo credit: Xinhua/Wang Ye

THIS BYSTANDER RECALLS a classic television advertisement from the 1970s in which US businessman Victor Kiam said he so loved using a Remington electric razor that he bought the company. China’s state-owned oil companies so love buying Saudi oil they are reportedly thinking of doing the same.

The Reuters news agency recently reported that the kingdom is evaluating the sale of 5% of its state oil company, Saudi Aramco, to a Chinese consortium comprising PetroChina and Sinopec, state-owned banks and China’s sovereign wealth fund. This would be as an alternative, or possibly a precursor to an initial public offering (IPO) of the Aramco’s shares on one or more stock markets, a listing that would likely be the biggest share sale ever and expected to raise $100 billion. The Chinese consortium would presumably have to come close to matching that number.

Ever since the Saudi government said it was looking to sell a small stake in Aramco in 2018 to kick start the funding of its economic diversification programme, Vision 2030, the world’s leading stock exchanges have been bidding for what would be both a large and a prestige bit of business. Some suitors have been ready to turn a blind eye to infringements of their own rules in their desire to get the listing.

A direct sale of a stake to China, the biggest buyer of Saudi oil, would make any eventual listing more likely to happen in Shanghai or Hong Kong than New York or London, which would be a considerable feather in the caps of either exchange.

Such a deal would also strengthen two-way Saudi-China trade and investment ties. In August, the Saudi energy minister said he expected to conclude a deal next year with PetroChina for the Saudis to invest in a new 260,000-barrels-a-day oil refinery in Yunnan that started operations in July. That investment was reported in April to be a 30% stake valued at $2 billion.

A similar arrangement could be struck with China National Offshore Oil Corp, (CNOOC), which is building a 200,000-barrels-a-day refinery in Guangdong province.

Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli (seen above on the left) visited Saudi Arabia in August, meeting Saudi King Salman (on the right) and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Red Sea resort of Jeddah. This followed an exchange of official visits in 2016, with the king in March returning a visit by President Xi Jinping in January in which the two countries agreed to upgrade the bilateral ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership.

China is already Saudi Arabia’s largest export market, at $23.6 billion (2016 figures), all but a slither of it crude and refined oil and petrochemical products, and accounting for 15% of Saudi export volumes. China is also the kingdom’s leading source of imports, at $18.7 billion, accounting for 14% of total import volumes. Machinery accounts for 36% of Chinese imports, followed by metals (13%) and textiles (12%).

However, since late 2015, when China changed its rules on where independent refiners could buy crude, Russian suppliers have been vying with the Saudis to be China’s leading source of crude. That generates competition that will be welcome in Beijing for the effect it will have on prices, but another reason that Saudi might be prepared to cut investment deals to secure its exports.

 

Update: Aramco’s chief executive, Amin Nasser, told the US business news TV channel CNBC in an interview broadcast on October 23 that an IPO was on track for the second half of 2018. Nasser also denied a Financial Times report that Aramco was talking to ‘the Chinese or others’ about delaying the share sale. He was not pressed, however, on whether a separate deal with investor groups could co-exist with a public share sale.

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