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West at fault for the debt burden of developing countries

By Djoomart Otorbaev | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-03-22 09:14
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According to the World Bank's International Debt Statistics, by the end of 2020, the largest share of debt to developing nations, amounting to 40 percent of the total loan portfolio, was provided by private Western financial institutions. Multilateral development institutions supplied 34 percent of all loans, and bilateral creditors provided 26 percent, of which China's share was less than 10 percent.

Despite such statistics, some Western countries have launched a broad propaganda campaign, in which China is portrayed as the main creditor lending money to corrupt foreign rulers to build infrastructure in the expectation that the borrowers will default, enabling it to confiscate state assets in its supposed quest for world domination. Such accusations are voiced by experts and journalists, and even by officials. For example, in 2020 the United States released a white paper titled "The Elements of the China Challenge", which hyped up what it called China's "predatory development program and debt-trap diplomacy".

However, reputable Western experts are convinced that the debt trap rhetoric against China is unfounded. Deborah Brautigam, director of the China-Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, calculated that between 2000 and 2019, China restructured or refinanced about $15 billion of African debt. She did not find evidence that China was involved in any "asset seizures".

Shahar Hameiri, who is an associate professor of international politics at the University of Queensland in Australia, wrote, "There is scant evidence that China has pursued 'debt-trap diplomacy' — i.e., the idea that it would on purpose issue loans to ensnare recipients in unsustainable debt, in order to seize strategic assets or exercise control over their governments."

Harry Verhoeven of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University in New York also rejects the notion that China deliberately creates debt traps. "When it comes to China, the debt-trap narrative suggests… this is being done on purpose," to reduce Western influence, he said, yet there "is little actual evidence that China's been doing this for political gain".

Tim Jones, head of policy at the activist organization Debt Justice, has said: "Western leaders blame China for debt crises in Africa, but this is a distraction. The truth is their own banks, asset managers and oil traders are far more responsible, but the G7 are letting them off the hook. The (United Kingdom) and US should introduce legislation to compel private lenders to take part in debt relief."

Most experts agree that the most dangerous and insidious sovereign debt is issued by the private sector. And due to the widespread and significant increase in inflation worldwide, this has become an unbearable burden for borrowers. Economists at Tsinghua University have calculated that in low- and middle-income countries, government bond holdings owed to Western financial institutions reached $1.7 trillion in 2020, almost quadrupled from 2008. They account for more than 63.2 percent of the total interest expense of bond-issuing countries, and this proportion is expected to increase.

Besides, Western commercial lenders and multilateral institutions have not participated in global debt relief and service suspension efforts. The leaders of the largest multilateral development institutions recently expressed great concern in this regard, explicitly turning to Western governments with demands to change the order of these instruments. Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, has written directly to the US and UK governments to help push for legislation to prevent private creditors from blocking debt-relief agreements.

World Bank President David Malpass made a similar plea. "Creditors are usually better financed with the highest-paid lawyers representing them, often in US and UK courts that make debt restructurings difficult. It is surely possible that these countries — two of the biggest contributors to development — can do more to reconcile their public policies towards the poorest countries and their laws protecting the rights of creditors to demand repayments from these countries," he said.

The most well-known example of the narrative regarding so-called Chinese "debt trap" was the transfer of ownership of Sri Lanka's port to Chinese companies, ostensibly in exchange for restructuring the country's sovereign debt to China. Regarding the financial situation of Sri Lanka, data from the country's Department of External Resources show that as of 2021, 81 percent of the country's external debt was owned by US and European financial institutions, as well as Japan and India, and debt to China was just 10 percent.

It is clear that the main creditors of developing countries' sovereign debt, provided on onerous terms, are private Western lenders and multilateral development institutions. Accusations that China is deliberately setting up "debt traps" are false.

The author is former prime minister of Kyrgyzstan, a distinguished professor at the Belt and Road School of Beijing Normal University, and the author of Central Asia's Economic Rebirth in the Shadow of the New Great Game. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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