A few months away from a tense political transition at the highest levels of China’s state machinery, a dozen high-ranking officials are competing for the strategic post of director of the Export-Import Bank of China (Exim).
That post has been occupied by Li Ruogu since 2005, and this former economist at the International Monetary Fund and deputy governor of the central bank in Beijing could hand over to a more politically inclined successor. If so, it would be a recognition that China Exim Bank, an almost never-ending source of loans and preferential credits, is more than just an ordinary bank.
Created in 1994, it has become a force to be reckoned with in Africa and across the world. It now devotes between a third and one half of its activities to Africa. According to statistics published by the UK daily newspaper the Financial Times, China Exim Bank and the China Development Bank awarded more than $120bn in loans between 2009 and 2010.
Ratings agency Fitch estimates that $67.2bn of China Exim Bank’s loans were for African projects between 2001 and 2010. That is much more than the World Bank’s $54.7bn over the same period.
In sub-Saharan Africa, China Exim Bank was the source of 92% of Chinese investment in infrastructure projects from 2001 to 2007.
Already in 2012, it has awarded $500m to the Republic of Congo for the reconstruction of the Mpila neighbourhood destroyed by a blast at a munitions dump, another $500m for the construction of a road to link Douala and Yaoundé in Cameroon and $120m for electrification projects in Chad.
Those are just the projects that have been made public by an institution that is well known for its opacity. China Exim Bank, which publishes an annual report each year with just some general statistics, refused to answer questions for this piece.
Placed under the joint tutelage of the commerce and foreign affairs ministries, the bank benefits from some of the more than $3.2trn in foreign reserves held by the government and positions itself as the financial arm of Chinese diplomacy.
Finance from China Exim Bank and China Development Bank also helps to contribute to the internationalisation of the renminbi. The currency is not convertible on international markets, for the most part, but the Chinese Communist Party leadership is keen to give it a role beside the euro and the US dollar.
The bank is also cultivating ties through other means. China Exim Bank is already the largest foreign stakeholder in Afreximbank, Africa’s export-import bank.
Afreximbank held its first general assembly on foreign soil with a meeting in Beijing in July, where China announced an extra $20bn in loans during the next three years.
Those are ties other development finance institutions would dearly like. “It is clear that we would like to work more with the big Chinese banks active in Africa,” explains the head of a large development finance group.
“The worry is that they function on a state-to-state basis and they never do joint financing”●
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