How China’s biggest debtors may struggle to pay off their loans

Most of Beijing’s foreign aid donations take the form of loans, but there are serious questions about how some of the beneficiaries will repay the money

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 October, 2017, 12:40pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 October, 2017, 4:24pm

A report this week indicated that China was on course to overtake the United States as the world’s biggest foreign aid donor.

However, the research by the US-based AidData project – published on Wednesday – also showed that between 2000 and 2014 most Chinese aid, around 77 per cent of the total, had been offered at market or close to market rates.

The South China Morning Post has reviewed five of the largest Chinese aid projects across several continents and found that some of the country’s biggest debtors are struggling to pay back the loans.


Russia’s state-owned oil company Rosenft was named as China’s largest creditor in AidData’s report, receiving two loans worth a total of US$34 billion from China Development Bank (CDB) in 2009.

The figure is almost 10 per cent of China’s total foreign aid spending over the period studied by AidData.

The loans were designed to improve the oil company’s operations, including the annual supply of 15 million tonnes of oil to China over a 20-year period starting in 2011.

Rosneft expects to pay an average of 5.69 per cent annual interest on US$15 billion of that debt over 20 years, according to AidData.

Last month at the BRICS summit in Xiamen, Shanghai-based company CEFC China Energy signed a contract taking a 14 per cent stake in Rosenft.

Rosneft’s chief executive Igor Sechin told Russian state TV that the US$9 billion deal was prompted by the desire of Rosenft’s private investors to reduce the onerous debt repayments.

The company has struggled in recent years due to the fall in global oil prices. It has also been hit by United States sanctions imposed in the wake of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.

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In 2014, China agreed to give a US$8 billion loan for a cross-country railway from the landlocked west African state to the port in Conakry, capital of its neighbour Guinea.

The deal was signed by Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita at the World Economic Forum in Tianjin.

In return the China Railway Engineering Corporation agreed to build the 900km railway.

But by 2016 the West African nation had amassed a total of US$1,754 billion in debts – 22.6 per cent of its GDP, according to the IMF – raising questions about its ability to meet all its obligations to its creditors.


Two power plants financed by China in Pakistan’s Karachi Nuclear Power Plant Complex are under construction funded by loans from China’s Export-Import Bank, which offered a mixed credit of US$6.5 billion to finance the projects in 2014.

The K-2 and K-3 reactors are being built by China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), using the design of the company’s third-generation nuclear reactor design models.

Construction of K-2 began in 2015 and the reactor is expected to start commercial operations in 2021, while work started on K-3 last year, with the aim of having it up and running in 2022.

The project is a rare example of a major Chinese loan that does not face specific concerns about repayment.

The Chinese bank is financing most the project with US$4 billion of preferential buyer credit at an interest rate of 2 per cent, a buyer credit of US$2.2 billion at a rate of 6 per cent, and the remainder is a concessional loan at a rate of 1 per cent.

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CDB provided a US$4.02 billion loan to Venezuela’s state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) in 2013.

The deal was signed in the hope of doubling daily oil production in the oil-rich country and was supported by PDVSA’s joint venture with the Chinese state-owned company China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).

This loan was signed under a maturity date of eight years at a rate of Libor (the rate banks use to lend to each other) plus 5 per cent.

The loan is only a proportion of the total of US$60 billion the country owes China.

However, the country has been hit by a wave of political and economic crises in recent years and this week the IMF forecast that inflation would reach 2,349 per cent next year – up from 2,069 per cent this year. The value of its currency has also collapsed.

Venezuela has been repaying China part of its total outstanding debt in the form of oil shipments, but a report by Reuters in February said the PDVSA has failed to make timely deliveries of 3.2 million barrels of crude shipments to CNPC since the start of this year.


In 2014, two years after China’s Export-Import Bank provided a US$3.65 billion loan in exchange for supplies of grain, Beijing sued Kiev for breaching the deal.

The South China Morning Post reported that the State Food and Grain Corporation of Ukraine had used part of the Chinese loan to provide crops for other countries and parties, including Ethiopia, Iran, Kenya and some Syrian opposition groups.

China took the case to the Court of International Arbitration in London in 2014 after only receiving US$153 million worth of Ukrainian grain, or 180,000 tonnes, as the ITAR-TASS news agency reported in 2014.

The Ukrainian foreign ministry denied that there were any problems and said China had not demanded the loan be returned.

The rulings in the London court were given in secret and the only known public gesture made by the Ukraine government was to agree to submit plans for how the money would be used to secure funding from the agreed loan.

Yet in May this year, Reuters reported that the Ukrainian government had again pushed back the deadline to submit the plan to China.