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Caution, Cancellations, Protests as Concerns Grow on China’s Belt and Road

Concerns about debt diplomacy on China’s expansive infrastructure megaproject — the Belt and Road — have become an increasing source of debate from Asia to Africa and the Middle East. In recent weeks, more than $30 billion in projects have been scrapped and other loans and investments are under review.

 

Public opposition is also testing the resolve of ruling authorities from Hanoi to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, as concerns about Chinese investment build.

In late August, Malaysia’s newly elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad canceled more than $20 billion in Belt and Road projects for railway and pipelines, and Pakistan lopped another $2 billion off plans for a railway following a decision late last year to cancel a $14 billion dam project, citing financial concerns. Nepal canceled its dam project last month and Sierra Leone announced last week that it was dropping an airport project over debt concerns.

 

In some countries such as Vietnam, it is just the idea of Chinese investment — against the backdrop of the Belt and Road — that has led to push back.

Following public protests, Vietnam recently decided to postpone plans for several special economic zones.

 

Several Belt and Road projects have seen setbacks in countries where debt concerns have coincided with political elections and a change of power — be it Pakistan, Malaysia or the Maldives, says economist Christopher Balding.

 

“The people in these countries are very worried about the level of debt that these countries are taking on in regard to China and I think that is very important to note,” Balding said. “It’s not just anti-China people that are driving this, but that there is a lot of concern on the ground in the countries about that.”

 

China says there are no political strings attached to its investments and loans. It also argues it is providing funding in places others will not. But Beijing’s takeover of a port in Sri Lanka last year and the sheer volume of Chinese investments along the Belt and Road project have done little to ease those concerns.

 

String of ports

 

Late last year, according to the New York Times, China agreed to forgive Sri Lanka’s debt in exchange for a 99-year lease of Hambanthota Port and 15,000 acres of surrounding land.

The government of Sri Lanka denies it divested land to a Chinese company, but the deal has convinced some that China is setting up debt traps to then take over the infrastructure that Chinese state-run companies build.

 

Hambanthota is one of 42 ports where China has participated in construction and operations, with more on the horizon.

In 2021, China will take over operation of one of Israel’s largest ports in Haifa. Beijing is also being eyed as a possible candidate for the development of Chabahar port in Iran, which is near the Iran-Pakistan border.

The port proposal remains in limbo, however, due to U.S. sanctions. And that’s not the only obstacle, according to David Kelly, research director at the Beijing-based group China Policy.

“It’s in the driest and most remote part of Iran,” Kelly said. “It looks like a real loser commercially, unless it handles a lot of oil.”

Analysts say the Middle East, with its oil money and deep pockets, is less at risk for debt traps.

 

However, the port that is most likely to follow in Sri Lanka’s footsteps is Djibouti, a strategically important country on the Horn of Africa, where China recently established its first overseas military base.

According to official figures, Djibouti’s debt is more than 88 percent of the GDP and China owns $1.4 billion of that. That kind of debt overhang could lead to the same type of concessionary agreements as in Sri Lanka, analysts note.

 

Debt traps

 

A report released earlier this year by Washington, D.C.-based Center for Global Development said 23 of the 68 countries where China is investing for Belt and Road projects are at high risk of debt distress. Another eight, including Djibouti, are vulnerable to debt distress linked to future projects.

 

China argues its investments are aimed at boosting trade and commerce and giving developing countries a leg up.

 

China Policy’s Kelly says places where the debt situation is more critical are countries such as land-locked and poverty-stricken Zambia. There, concerns are causing a very public push for the government to disclose the full burden of Chinese debt.

 

“The upset and upheaval in Zambia recently, where you’ve got African civil society coming out and making this case,” Kelly said, “That is always going to be more significant where you have the local people, making a local case.”

 

BRI indigestion

 

Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, says cancellations and changes are what he calls Belt and Road indigestion.

Concerns about debt traps and debt diplomacy will not have an impact on China going forward, he says, but stops, starts and cancellations will continue.

 

Oh says China’s model of development — build infrastructure and the economy will grow — may have worked at home, but it doesn’t always fit along the Belt and Road.

 

“In many of these Belt and Road initiative countries, if you lay out the infrastructure, it doesn’t automatically mean that trade and investment will take place,” Oh said, “Some of these projects will have to be more attuned to the local requirements of particular countries.”

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US Budget Deficit Hits Six-Year High

The U.S. government’s budget deficit hit $779 billion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, while spending increased and tax revenues remained nearly flat, the Treasury said Monday.

It was the biggest deficit since 2012, and $113 billion more than the figure a year ago. The 2018 deficit amounted to 3.9 percent of the country’s more than $18 trillion annual economy, up from 3.5 percent last year.

The government’s deficit spending boosted the country’s long-term debt figure to more than $21 trillion, forcing the government to pay an extra $65 billion last year in interest on money the government has had to borrow to run its programs.

In all, government spending rose by $127 billion last year, while tax collections increased by $14 billion.

The Treasury said the annual deficit rose partly because corporate tax collections dropped by $76 billion after Congress approved cuts in tax rates for both businesses and individuals that were supported by President Donald Trump.

Mick Mulvaney, the government’s budget director, said the country’s “booming economy will create increased government revenues — an important step toward long-term fiscal sustainability. But this fiscal picture is a blunt warning to Congress of the dire consequences of irresponsible and unnecessary spending.”

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Zimbabwe’s Government Says Worst of its Economic Woes is Over

Zimbabwe’s government says the country is emerging from a recent economic meltdown that saw shops run out of goods and motorists spend long hours in lines at gas stations. Economists say Zimbabwe’s crisis is not over, as people have no confidence in the currency or in President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government.

For weeks now, there have been long and winding queues at most fuel stations in Zimbabwe, as the precious liquid has been in short supply. Lameck Mauriri is one of those now tired of the situation.

“We are really striving but things are tough to everyone,” said Mauriri. “I do not know how those in rural areas, how they are surviving, especially if in Harare it is like this. We are sleeping in fuel queues. There is not fuel, there is no bread, there is no drink. There is no everything. No cash, no jobs.”

For a decade, the country has been without an official currency and relied on U.S. dollars, the British pound and South African rand to conduct transactions. In the past three years, however, all three currencies have been hard to find, paralyzing the economy.

The introduction of bond notes — a currency Zimbabwe started printing two years ago to ease the situation — has not helped.

The bond notes were supposed to trade at par with the U.S. dollar; but, on the black market, a dollar now is now equal to close to three bond notes.

Prosper Chitambara, an economist of the Labor and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe says the bond notes are partly to blame for the price increases and shortages in the country.

“What is lacking in the economy, in the market is confidence. There is a distrust of the formal economic system,” said Chitambara. “The bond notes have definitely contributed a great deal to the current economic situation, a fallacy economic situation. What they have done is for example to increase money supply in the economy. And that money supply is not actually backed by significant productivity in the economy. That actually gives rise to general of inflationary pressures.”

He said the government’s recent introduction of a 2 percent tax on all electronic transactions pushed prices even higher and caused some shops to close.

Ndabaningi Nick Mangwana, Zimbabwe’s secretary in the Ministry of Information and Publicity, says the situation in the country is normal and there is no need for alarm.

“There is no shortage to oil itself, there is no challenge in terms of production of all these essential services,” said Mangwana. “That is why they are there if you go. There were a few people who panicked, closed a couple of shops, but those opened within hours. There was fake news and people panicked, but it is all under control.”

That is not exactly what seems to be the case on the ground. Some shops remain closed and prices continue rising. Long fuel lines remain the order of the day. 

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Artificial Intelligence Can Help Fight Global Hunger

A world without hunger by 2030 is the theme of this year’s World Food Day, and the goal of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Events around the world on October 16th will promote awareness and action for those who suffer from hunger and for the need to ensure food security and nutritious diets for all. Advances in technology and artificial intelligence can help feed the world. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee explains.

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Using CT Scans to Predict Heart Attacks

One of the joys of computer algorithms and machine learning is their ability to extract new data from old technologies. Doctors at the University of London in Oxford for instance have figured out a way to take regular CT heart scans and predict heart problems years in advance. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

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Facebook: Hackers Accessed 29M Accounts – Fewer Than Thought

Facebook says hackers accessed data from 29 million accounts as part of the security breach disclosed two weeks ago, fewer than the 50 million it initially believed were affected.

The hackers accessed name, email addresses or phone numbers from these accounts, according to Facebook. For 14 million of them, hackers got even more data, such as hometown, birthdate, the last 10 places they checked into or the 15 most recent searches.

 

An additional 1 million accounts were affected, but hackers didn’t get any information from them.

 

Facebook isn’t giving a breakdown of where these users are, but says the breach was “fairly broad.” It plans to send messages to people whose accounts were hacked.

 

Facebook said third-party apps and Facebook apps like WhatsApp and Instagram were unaffected by the breach.

 

Facebook said the FBI is investigating, but asked the company not to discuss who may be behind the attack. The company said it hasn’t ruled out the possibility of smaller-scale attacks that used the same vulnerability.

 

Facebook has said the attackers gained the ability to “seize control” of those user accounts by stealing digital keys the company uses to keep users logged in. They could do so by exploiting three distinct bugs in Facebook’s code. The company said it has fixed the bugs and logged out affected users to reset those digital keys.

 

At the time, CEO Mark Zuckerberg – whose own account was compromised – said attackers would have had the ability to view private messages or post on someone’s account, but there’s no sign that they did.

 

 

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Global Stocks Climb Following Two Days of Sharp Losses

World stocks are climbing Friday after two days of sharp losses. Major U.S. stock indexes are up more than 1 percent, but they’re still on track for their biggest one-week loss since late March.

Technology and internet companies were some of the hardest hit over the last two days and they led the market higher Friday. Apple climbed 2.7 percent to $220.18. Consumer-focused companies also rallied, as Amazon jumped 3.8 percent to $1,783.96 and Netflix surged 4.7 percent to $336.30.

The S&P 500 index climbed 37 points, or 1.4 percent, to 2,766 at 9:45 a.m. Eastern time. The benchmark index tumbled 5.3 percent over the past two days and as of Thursday it had fallen for six consecutive days. The S&P is down 5.6 percent from its latest record high, set Sept. 20.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped 305 points, or 1.2 percent, to 25,358. The Nasdaq composite surged 138 points, or 1.9 percent, to 7,467. The Russell 2000 index gained 17 points, or 1.2 percent, to 1,563. That index, which is made up of smaller and more U.S.-focused companies, has fallen into a 10 percent “correction” since reaching a record high at the end of August.

On the New York Stock Exchange, winners outnumbered losers eight to one.

Stocks in Europe and Asia also recovered some of their recent losses. The French CAC 40 and the DAX in Germany both rose 0.8 percent while Britain’s FTSE 100 was 0.7 percent higher. Japan’s Nikkei 225 index gained 0.5 percent after sinking early in the day and following a nearly 4 percent loss on Thursday. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng surged 2.1 percent and the Kospi in South Korea rose 1.5 percent.

The market’s recent losing streak started when strong economic data and positive comments from Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell helped set off a wave of selling in the bond market. Investors were betting that the U.S. economy would keep growing at a healthy pace. The sales pushed bond prices lower and yields higher. That drove interest rates sharply higher, which worried investors who felt that a big increase in interest rates could eventually stifle economic growth. Higher yields also make bonds more appealing to investors versus stocks.

The worst losses went to stocks that have led the market in recent years, including technology companies, as well as companies that do better when economic growth speeds up, like industrial firms.

Banks rose as they began to report their third-quarter results. Citigroup jumped 2.4 percent to $70.04. Last year’s corporate tax cut and rising interest rates have helped banks make more money.

Bond prices turned lower as the stock market stabilized. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 3.16 percent from 3.13 percent.

High-dividend stocks lagged the rest of the market, and utilities and household goods makers were little changed. Those stocks held up a bit better than the rest of the market over the last six days. Investors view them as relatively safe, steady assets that look better when growth is uncertain and the rest of the market is in turmoil.

U.S. crude oil added 0.6 percent to $71.43 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, the international standard, was up 0.6 percent to $80.77 a barrel in London.

The dollar rose to 112.17 yen from 111.94 yen. The euro fell to $1.1548 from $1.1594.

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‘Winter Is Coming’: Indonesia Warns World Finance Leaders Over Trade War

Just in case any of the global central bankers and finance ministers gathered in Indonesia missed the message delivered repeatedly this week, the host nation said it again Friday: Everyone stands to lose if trade wars are allowed to escalate.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo didn’t mention the United States or China, the world’s two largest economies, but it was clear who he was talking about in an address to the plenary session of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings on the island of Bali.

“Lately it feels like the relations among the major economies are becoming more and more like Game of Thrones,” Widodo said in a speech peppered with references to the HBO series about dynasties and kingdoms battling for power.

“Are we so busy fighting with each other and competing against each other that we fail to notice the things which are increasingly threatening, all of us alike, rich and poor, large and small,” he said.

Poorer and populous emerging market countries like his are among the most vulnerable to the fallout from the ongoing U.S.-Sino tariff war, and rising U.S. interest rates that are drawing investors away and driving down currencies.

“All these troubles in the world economy, are enough to make us feel like saying: ‘Winter is coming,'” Widodo said, using a phrase that characters in the popular fantasy series constantly repeat to refer to spectral dangers that could destroy them all.

With rivalry growing in the world economy, Widodo said “the situation could be more critical compared to the global financial crisis 10 years ago.”

The market ructions have now cascaded through to developed markets with Wall Street extending a slide into a sixth session on Thursday amid the trade war fears.

The United States and China have slapped tit-for-tat tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of each other’s goods over the past few months.

The tariffs stem from the Trump administration’s demands that China make sweeping changes to its intellectual property practices, rein in high-technology industrial subsidies, open its markets to more foreign competition and take steps to cut a politically sensitive U.S. goods trade surplus.

Rubbing salt in U.S. wounds, China reported on Friday an unexpected acceleration in export growth in September and a record $34.13 billion trade surplus with the United States.

Mnuchin: China trade talks must include yuan

In an interview with Reuters, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that he told China’s central bank chief that currency issues need to be part of any further U.S.-China trade talks and expressed his concerns about the yuan’s recent weakness.

Mnuchin also said that China needs to identify concrete “action items” to rebalance the two countries’ trade relationship before talks to resolve their disputes can resume.

The U.S. Treasury chief and People’s Bank of China Governor Yi Gang extensively discussed currency issues on the sidelines of the meetings in Bali.

Mnuchin’s comments on China’s currency come ahead of next week’s scheduled release of a hotly anticipated Treasury report on currency manipulation, the first since a significant weakening of yuan began this spring.

Mnuchin said re-launching trade talks would require China to commit to taking action on structural reforms to its economy.

If the relationship could be rebalanced, he said the U.S.-China total annual trade relationship could grow to $1 trillion from $650 billion currently, with $500 billion of exports from each country.

G-20 members and trade issues

Meanwhile, the chairman of a meeting of finance leaders from the Group of 20 leading industrialized and emerging economies admitted that the trade tensions within the group could only be solved by the countries directly involved.

“The G-20 can play a role in providing the platform for discussions. But the differences that still persist should be resolved by the members that are directly involved in the tensions,” Nicolas Dujovne, Argentina’s Treasury Minister, told a news conference after chairing the G-20 meeting in Bali.

More than 19,000 delegates and other guests, including ministers, central bank heads and some leaders, were attending the IMF-World Bank meetings, and Widodo asked them to “cushion the blows from trade wars, technical disruption and market turmoil.”

“I hope you will each do your part to nudge our various leaders in the right direction,” Widodo said, adding that “confrontation and collision impose a tragic price.”

The IMF’s twice-yearly report on the Asia Pacific region, released Thursday, warned that the market rout seen in emerging economies could worsen if the Federal Reserve and other major central banks tightened monetary policy more quickly than expected.

At Friday’s plenary, IMF managing director Christine Lagarde estimated that the escalation of current trade tensions could reduce global GDP by almost one percent over the next two years.

IMF forecasts of global economic growth for both 2018 and 2019 were cut to 3.7 percent, from 3.9 percent in its July forecast.

“Clearly, we need to de-escalate these disputes,” Lagarde told the plenary session.

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Russia Space Agency: Astronauts Will Likely Fly in Spring

The head of Russia’s space agency said Friday that two astronauts who survived the midair failure of a Russian rocket would fly again and would provisionally travel to the International Space Station (ISS) in spring of next year.

Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russian space agency Roscosmos, was speaking a day after Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin and American Nick Hague made a dramatic emergency landing in Kazakhstan after the failure of the Soyuz rocket carrying them to the orbital ISS.

Rogozin Friday posted a picture on Twitter of himself next to the two astronauts and said they had now arrived in Moscow. Both men escaped unscathed and feel fine, Roscosmos has said.

The mishap occurred as the first and second stages of a Russian rocket separated shortly after the launch from Kazakhstan’s Soviet-era cosmodrome of Baikonur.

Thursday’s accident was the first serious launch problem experienced by a manned Soyuz space mission since 1983, when a crew narrowly escaped before a launch pad explosion.

The Interfax news agency Friday cited a source familiar with the Russian investigation as saying that a faulty valve had caused the first stage of the Soyuz-FG rocket to malfunction even though the valve had been properly checked before take-off.

NASA has relied on Russian rockets to ferry astronauts to the space station since the United States retired its Space Shuttle program in 2011, although the agency has announced plans for a test flight carrying two astronauts on a SpaceX commercial rocket next April.

Space is an area of cooperation between the United States and Russia at a time of fraught relations. Asked about the mishap, President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House he was “not worried” that American astronauts have to rely on Russia to get into space.

Moscow has suspended all manned space launches, while Rogozin has ordered a state commission to investigate what went wrong. Russia’s Investigative Committee has also opened a criminal investigation into the matter.

Unmanned launches of the Progress spacecraft, which carry food and other supplies to the ISS and use the same rocket system as Soyuz, might also be suspended, Interfax has said.

 

WATCH: US-Russian Space Crew Makes Emergency Landing

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US-Russian Space Crew Makes Emergency Landing After Rocket Problem

A U.S. astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut made an emergency return to earth Thursday shortly after launching on what was supposed to be a mission to the International Space Station. Rescuers reached American Nick Hague and Russian Alexei Ovchinin after their emergency landing in Kazakhstan. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb recently sat down with Hague to talk about his future in space, a future now up in the air after his unexpected fall to Earth.

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