Mar 31, 2021 - Economy & Business

How China uses secret loans for geopolitical power

Illustration of a stack of yuan as a mousetrap

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

China, like all other rich countries, lends billions of dollars to needy governments. A major new study from Georgetown University's Anna Gelpern and others shows that China's debt contracts are particularly unfriendly to debtor nations — and to the international community as a whole.

Why it matters: China is using debt contracts to place it at a geopolitical advantage not only to its debtors, but also to all other rich nations.

How it works: Chinese debt contracts differ from standard boilerplate in three main ways.

  • Confidentiality: Under the terms of most modern Chinese loans, borrowers are not allowed to reveal their terms or even their existence. That means China has much more information about debtor countries' real financial state of affairs than any other creditor nation, bank, or bondholder.
  • Collateral: China often insists on ensuring that countries set up a special bank account — at a bank “acceptable to the lender" — which China can seize more or less at will in the event that the borrower enters any kind of distress. That money is therefore effectively off-limits when it comes to any other form of government spending, even if it's an official part of the country's asset base.
  • Acceleration: China can declare the loan to be in default, with the full amount of the debt due and payable immediately, under an astonishingly broad range of events, including the debtor taking action adverse to almost any Chinese entity.

What they're saying: The collateral requirements mean in practice "that government revenues remain outside the borrowing country and beyond the sovereign borrower’s control," write the authors of the paper.

  • The Chinese loans also include “No Paris Club” clauses, which explicitly exclude the debts from being included as part of a broad international debt restructuring.
  • The combination of aggressive acceleration clauses with equally aggressive cross-default clauses means that China has extreme control over actions in debtor countries. For instance: one proposal to cancel a dam project in Argentina was abandoned because it would not only mean an event of default on dam-related loans; it would also mean an event of default on all Chinese loans to the country.

The bottom line: Citizens cannot hold their governments accountable for debts they do not know about. And when those governments do get into trouble, the web of Chinese debt contracts makes any kind of restructuring vastly more difficult.

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