China’s Strategic Gains

“Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend” – Chinese poem that inspired the name for Mao Zedong’s Hundred Flowers Movement

“Everything is relative in this world, where change alone endures.” – Leon Trotsky

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” – Winston Churchill

Democracy, according to Freedom House, peaked in 2005. Between the years 1970 and 2005 democracy flourished greatly. As recently as 1973, countries such as Spain, Portugal and Greece were dictatorships, and only forty-five out of the world’s then 151 countries were counted as  free democracies by Freedom House. Driven by massive social change at a global level, the number of free democracies had grown to 120 nations by the end of the twentieth century.

Over the last decade, however, democratic institutions have experienced a significant decline. And 2017 saw this trend accelerate. The reversal in fortunes of democracy has emboldened the likes of China and Russia to push for increasing acceptance of the ideologies underpinning their respective brands of governance across the developing world.

The Trump Administration’s inward looking policies and hostility towards pluralist international agreements have opened the door for China to replace the United States as the key power broker in Asia and the developing world. Take, for example, Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was followed up by Xi Jinping’s rousing support for globalisation at Davos in January 2017 and again at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in May 2017. And it is not just bravado; China is pushing for greater integration amongst Asian economies by driving negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – a proposed 16-nation free trade agreement that includes the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.

Chinese efforts to wrestle away US influence in Asia are not limited to the RCEP alone.

In May 2014, Xi called for an “Asia for Asians” – a security concept encouraging Asian nations to step up and assume leadership in administering regional order. Xi’s words were provocative at the time but are progressively coming to reflect the emerging reality in Asia.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – a collection of infrastructure projects under development across Pakistan valued at USD 62 billion – is a formalised strategic alliance that will connect landlocked parts of China to the port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea and gives China substantial influence over Pakistan.

China has also deepened ties with countries, such as the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Nepal, that have traditionally fallen in India’s sphere of influence. Leveraging its position as the Maldives’ biggest debt holder, China has entered into a free trade agreement with the Maldives in November last year and also received the government’s endorsement for its “Maritime Silk Road” plan. Sri Lanka too has capitulated under the burden of Chinese debt and has handed over the strategic port of Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease. Chinese firms also control a container terminal in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo. In Nepal the Left Alliance, a pro-China and communist party, propelled by China’s pledge to invest over USD 8 billion in developing Nepal’s infrastructure won the recent elections by a landslide and will take power in March 2018.

China’s deepening ties within Asia, while true to Xi’s “Asia for Asians” mantra, form part of its much larger vision: the Belt and Road Initiative. The Belt and Road Initiative, at times dubbed the Chinese Marshall Plan, is an ambitious economic policy centred on international infrastructure development. It will span four continents and encompasses the construction of two broad networks:

– The “Silk Road Economic Belt” a land based transportation network combined with industrial corridors along the path of the Old Silk Road that linked China to Europe; and

– The “Maritime Silk Road” a network of new ports and trade routes to develop three ocean-based “blue economic passages” which will connect Asia with Africa, Oceania and Europe

Scepticism, when the Belt and Road Initiative was unveiled by Xi Jinping in October 2013, ran high. For all its ambition, the fact remains that there are few countries that trust China. The US retreat and the promise of new infrastructure, however, have seen bottlenecks and political roadblocks fall by the wayside and the initiative has started to gather momentum. Quoting from Caterpillar Inc.’s fourth quarter earnings call (emphasis ours):

“Lastly, we expect to see continued growth in Asia Pacific, led by China. Our forecast is for China to remain strong through the first half of the year, and then slow in the second half, which reflects normal seasonality. In addition to China, we expect most other countries in Asia Pacific to grow, largely driven by investments in infrastructure.

Equipment manufacturers such as Caterpillar are seeing increased demand out of China and the Asia Pacific. Excavators and loaders, such as those produced by Caterpillar, are amongst the most commonly used earthmoving equipment at construction sites. The increase in orders for such equipment from China and the Asia Pacific are tell-tale signs that the Belt and Road Initiative is underway.

While sceptics will remain and there will be many hurdles along the way, the importance of the Belt and Road Initiative to China cannot be overstated. It is seen as being so important by Chinese leadership that during the Communist Party of China’s 19th National Congress, the following statement was deemed to be a necessary addition to the Chinese constitution:

“Following the principle of achieving shared growth through discussion and collaboration, and pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative.”

Some have speculated that because the Belt and Road Initiative is inseparably connected to Xi Jinping, the inclusion of the above statement into the constitution is a means by which Xi will extend his leadership beyond his term. We, however, think that this objective was already achieved by the enshrining of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” into the constitution. The Belt and Road Initiative is China’s path to rebalancing its economy, creating ripe markets for its “Made in China” policy to be a success, and moving up the manufacturing value chain.

China’s expanding influence in Asia comes at the cost of increasing insecurity amongst Japan, India, and the US. The Trump Administration, while being irreverent towards globalisation, contains amongst its ranks deep-seated China sceptics – Director of the White House National Trade Council Peter Navarro and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer chief amongst them – we think it is unlikely that the US will forfeit its position within the global order without a fight.

India, wary of the Chinese-Pakistani alliance, too, is trying to up the ante. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has signalled a USD 250 billion revamp of India’s armed forces by 2025 and 2017 saw India entering into new defence deals with Israel, Russia and the US. At the same time, India is trying to shore up relations with its neighbouring countries. It extended USD 4.5 billion in project financing to Bangladesh to support infrastructure development, committed USD 500 million in investment for the Chabahar Port in Iran, and also entered into an estimated USD 2 billion agreement with Iran for cooperation in the rail sector.

While China is unlikely to win over western democracies, Japan or India anytime soon, the overtures of Chinese money-fuelled infrastructure projects are likely to prove too tempting for most developing nations. And this, we think, is the reason the Belt and Road Initiative should continue gathering momentum.

Investment Perspective

Equity markets globally have started 2018 with a bang. This year’s most eye-catching market action, in our opinion, however, occurred on 2 January at the Karachi Stock Exchange in Pakistan. Why? Well, for starters, Trump’s first tweet of the year:

“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” – @realDonaldTrump

Given that Pakistan was to receive over USD 255 million and USD 900 million in security assistance from the US for 2016 and 2017, respectively, the freezing of these disbursements subsequent to the US President’s tweet was bad news for Pakistan. Yet the Pakistani stock market went up and has continued to go up since.


Karachi Stock Exchange 100 IndexKSE100.png

Source: Bloomberg

Two days after President Trump’s tweet against Pakistan, China unveiled that its second overseas military base would be built in Pakistan.  The base will be built at Jiwani, a port close to the Iranian border on the Gulf of Oman and will be a joint naval and air facility for Chinese forces.

China’s growing influence in Asia is real. The Belt and Road Initiative is gathering momentum. The investment implications of these developments may prove to be profound over the next decade. For now, it is a signal that China wants to increase its influence in Asia. Stability is a necessary condition in order to achieve further influence. For this reason, as we noted in Our Thoughts On and Investment Ideas for 2018, China bears stand to be disappointed in 2018.

An added corollary is that one should not be shorting the stocks of construction equipment providers.

This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.