But trade with partner countries might not be as badly affected as with countries elsewhere in the world, observers say. China’s trade with Belt & Road Countries rose by 3.2 per cent in the January-March period, but second quarter results will depend on how well they manage to contain the pathogen, academic says.
The Coronavirus Pandemic is set to cause a slump in Chinese investment in its signature Belt & Road Initiative and a dip in trade with partner countries that could take a year to overcome, analysts say.
But the impact of the health crisis on China’s economic relations with nations involved in the ambitious infrastructure development programme might not be as great as on those that are not.
China’s total foreign trade in the first quarter of 2020 fell by 6.4 per cent year on year, according to official figures from Beijing.
Trade with the United States, Europe and Japan all dropped in the period, by 18.3, 10.4 and 8.1 per cent, respectively, the Commerce Ministry said.
By comparison, China’s trade with belt and road countries increased by 3.2 per cent in the first quarter, although the growth figure was lower than the 10.8 per cent reported for the whole of 2019.
China’s trade with 56 Belt & Road Countries, located across Africa, Asia, Europe and South America accounts for about 30 per cent of its total annual volume, according to the Commerce Ministry.
Despite the first-quarter growth, Tong Jiadong, Professor of International Trade at Nankai University in Tianjin, said he expected China’s trade with Belt & Road Countries to fall by between 2 and 5 per cent this year.
His predictions are less gloomy than the 13 to 32 per cent contraction in global trade forecast for this year by the World Trade Organisation.
“A drop in first-quarter trade was inevitable but it slowly started to recover as it resumed production, especially with Southeast Asian, Eastern European and Arab countries,” Tong said.
“The second quarter will really depend on how the epidemic is contained in Belt & Road Countries.”
Nick Marro, Hong Kong-based head of global trade at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said he expected China’s total overseas direct investment to fall by about 30 per cent this year, which would be bad news for the Belt & Road Plan.
“This will derive from a combination of growing domestic stress in China, enhanced regulatory scrutiny over Chinese investment in major international markets, and weakened global economic prospects that will naturally depress investment demand,” he said.
The development of the Chinese built and operated special economic zone in the Cambodian town of Sihanoukville is reported to have slowed, while infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, including the Payra coal-fired power plant, have been put on hold.
Marro said the reduction of capital and labour from China might complicate other projects for key Belt & Road Partner, like Pakistan, which is home to infrastructure projects worth tens of billions of US dollars, and funded and built in large part by China.
“Pakistan looks concerning, particularly in terms of how we’ve assessed its sovereign and currency risk,” Marro said.
“Public debt is high compared to other emerging markets, while the coronavirus will push the budget deficit to expand to 10 per cent of GDP [gross domestic product] this year.”
Last week, Pakistan asked China for a 10-year extension to the repayment period on US$30 billion worth of loans used to fund the development of infrastructure projects, according to a report by local newspaper.
China’s overseas investment has been falling steadily from its peak in 2016, mostly as a result of Beijing’s curbs on capital outflows.
Last year, the direct investment by Chinese companies and organisations other than banks in Belt & Road Countries fell 3.8 per cent from 2018 to US$15 billion, with most of the money going to South and Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and Pakistan.
Tong said the pandemic had made Chinese investors nervous about putting their money in countries where disease control measures were becoming increasingly stringent, but added that the pause in activity would give all parties time to regroup.
“Investment in the second quarter will decline and allow time for the questions to be answered,” he said.
“Past experience along the Belt & Road has taught many lessons to both China and its partners, and forced them to think calmly about their own interests. The epidemic provides both parties with a good time for this.”
Dr. Frans-Paul van der Putten, Senior Research fellow at Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands, said China’s post-pandemic strategy for the Belt & Road in Europe might include a shift away from investing in high-profile infrastructure projects like ports and airports.
Investors might instead cooperate with transport and logistics providers rather than invest directly, he said.
“Even though in the coming years the amount of money China loans and invests abroad may be lower than in the peak years around 2015-16, I expect it to maintain the Belt & Road Plan as its overall strategic framework for its foreign economic relations,” he said.