Outbound financing and project contracting activity by Chinese firms has grown dramatically since the early 2000s. According to MOFCOM, Chinese firms reported $2 billion of foreign direct investment in non-financial companies (FDI) in 2003. By 2013, when the BRI was launched, FDI had already reached $90 billion. FDI peaked at around $170 billion in 2016 before falling back to $110 billion in 2019. Figures for new contracted projects abroad show a mostly similar pattern, with Chinese firms reporting $18 billion in 2003, $170 billion in 2013 and $260 billion in 2019.26
Chinese official data report outbound investment and project contracting activity as stable since the start of the COVID pandemic in early 2020. However, some studies suggest a sharp decline. The American Enterprise Institute’s China Global Investment Tracker (CGIT) database, for example, recorded a 62% decline in Chinese outbound investments in 2020 and a 40% decline in construction contracting, though activities in BRI countries were slightly more stable.27
The Chinese government does not maintain an official public list of BRI projects. Several public databases provide information on Chinese outbound financing and project contracting in countries with which China has signed BRI cooperation agreements. These include the following:
- China Global Investment Tracker (CGIT): this database, compiled by the American Enterprise Institute, catalogs over 3700 Chinese outbound investment and construction contracting projects since 2005 across all sectors.28 CGIT data report around $790 billion in energy and power investment and contracting projects from 2005 through July 2021, as well as $400 billion in transport and $200 billion in metals. These sectors comprise over 60% of recorded deals.29
- China Overseas Finance Inventory (COFI): this database, hosted by the World Resources Institute, catalogs 509 power-generation projects in BRI countries that were financed by Chinese corporations and banks and reached financial closure from 2000 to 2021. (COFI aggregates its data from sources including many of the Boston University databases described below.) Total Chinese debt financing recorded is $123.4 billion.30
- Global Chinese Development Finance Database: this database, developed by the AidData project at the College of William & Mary, catalogs 13,827 Chinese “development finance” projects worth $843 billion between 2000 and 2017. During the BRI era (2013–17), they report that three-quarters of all such finance ($323 billion) has gone to projects in industry, mining, construction, energy, transport and storage.31
- The Boston University Global Development Policy Center (GDP Center) manages a series of overlapping databases that feed into some of the databases listed above.
- China’s Global Energy Finance (CGEF)catalogs outbound energy-sector lending between 2000 and 2021 from China’s two major policy banks for international projects, China Development Bank (CDB) and the Export-Import Bank of China (China Exim). It records $75.2 billion in lending since 2016, mostly for oil, gas and coal projects––but no lending in 2021. (Section D below discusses these banks further.)
- China’s Global Power Database: catalogs outbound power generation projects involving Chinese foreign direct investment and policy bank finance since 2000.32 Coverage includes 106 GW of capacity in operation, 43 GW under construction and 37 GW under planning as of its most recent update in 2019.
- Chinese Loans to Africa Database: catalogs loan commitments by Chinese financiers to African governments and state-owned enterprises from 2000 onwards.33 It records 1188 loan commitments worth $160 billion, with 65% of financing supporting transport, power or mining projects. But lending has generally fallen since 2013 and was lower in 2020 ($1.9 billion) than any year since the mid-2000s.34
- China-Latin America Finance Databases: a pair of databases, managed by the GDP Center and the Inter-American Dialogue, that catalog loans by major Chinese policy and commercial banks to Latin American governments and state-owned enterprises. Half of reported loans by commercial banks since 2012 have gone to the energy sector, as has 70% of policy bank financing since 2005.35
- China’s Overseas Development Finance Database: catalogs 862 loans by CDB and China Exim to foreign governments, inter-governmental bodies and state-owned entities between 2008 and 2019, with project geolocations included for around 70%.36
The official Belt and Road Portal also issues weekly bulletins on Chinese firms’ outbound projects, reporting contract announcements, construction launches and project completions.37
The following sections discuss investments and project contracting for two sectors—energy and mining—in greater detail.
(i) Energy Sector
Within the energy sector, Chinese outbound investment and project contracting over the past several decades has focused on oil, gas and coal. The sectoral balance has changed over time, however, with oil investment volumes falling substantially since the early 2010s. Meanwhile, most investments in low-carbon resources have flowed to hydropower. Wind and solar investments abroad are growing, but slowly––especially in contrast to rapid increases in renewables investments at home (see Chapter 6 of this Guide).
- The CGIT Tracker records $161 billion of activity in coal, oil and gas by Chinese firms since 2014: $71 billion in oil, $55 billion in gas and $61 billion in coal. This activity was divided roughly equally between investments and construction contracting deals. The vast majority (85%) was in BRI countries.38
- This balance is a shift from the prior decade when oil investments were somewhat more prominent. CGIT records $87 billion in oil investments from 2005 to 2013, as well as $43 billion in coal contracting and $41 billion in hydro contracting. These activities accounted for 95% of recorded energy-sector investments in this period, as opposed to around half since 2014.
- Chen and Springer (2021) find Chinese financing or EPC contracting in 1027 overseas coal, gas, wind or solar power plants that entered operation since 2000 or plan to start operations by 2033.39 These power plants have a cumulative capacity of 272 GW. Other studies on currently operating plants identify up to roughly 120 GW of operating coal power overseas built with Chinese financing or contracting services and around 15 GW or more of renewables.
- The Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air reported in April 2022 that Chinese “private and public entities have provided financial capital or equipment, procurement and construction (EPC) services to approximately 124 gigawatts (GW) of coal plants operating today—12% of the coal generation fleet outside of China.40
- Regarding financing specifically, the COFI database records 72 GW of coal, 33 GW of hydro, 25 GW of gas, 12 GW of renewables and 4 GW of nuclear financed by Chinese institutions overseas from 2000 to 2020. Aggregate financing for hydropower projects ($47.7 billion), however, slightly exceeds coal projects ($40.3 billion).41
- Regarding project contracting specifically, Tao et al. (2020) analyze public information for 458 power projects across 15 countries in the BRI’s major regions “in which Chinese engineering contracting companies played a significant role” between 2005 and 2019. Fifty-eight percent of these projects since the BRI’s announcement (45 GW) were coal. Gas accounted for another 20% (18 GW); hydropower was 14% (12 GW), while wind and solar were 10% (8 GW).42
- A study by Tsinghua University and Greenovation Hub reports 17.1 GW of wind and solar projects developed by Chinese companies in BRI countries from 2014 to 2018, mostly solar. It adds that 15 GW of wind were under construction or “awaiting development” as of mid-2019.
Chinese outbound energy-sector finance has been slower to embrace renewables than domestic investment.
- Lund Larsen and Oehler (2022) find that Chinese enterprises’ outbound energy-sector investments in BRI countries in 2019 focused much more heavily on fossil resources than did their domestic investments. 87% of BRI energy-sector investments in their analysis went to fossil fuel supply or fossil-based power generation, as opposed to 56% of domestic investments. The split was even starker in power generation: 85% of domestic investments were in hydropower or renewables, as opposed to just 34% of outbound investments.43
- Chen and Springer (2021) identify no major changes in the generation mix of Chinese outbound investments in the past decade. They also find that Chinese FDI has supported substantial gas investments––in East Asia, Africa and Southeast Asia, gas FDI exceeds coal, solar and wind combined.44
China’s financial footprint in outbound fossil-sector lending is large––but not uniquely so. Western and Japanese banks and investors also play a major role in cross-border financial flows for fossil resources. In the coal sector, for instance, a 2021 Boston University study found that, while China is the “largest public financier of overseas coal plants,” more than 80% of coal capacity added or under planning between 2013 and mid-2019 outside of China had no Chinese financial participation. Other major financial sources for these projects include Japanese and Western commercial banks and institutional investors, though data for project-level financing is thin.45 Data is also thin on disinvestment (sales of assets), though this certainly takes place. In 2021, for instance, Sinopec sold its oil-producing business in Argentina in a deal reportedly valued at around $250 mn. This occurred a decade after it had entered the country with a $2.45 billion purchase of a US oil producer Occidental Petroleum’s local assets.46
Chinese outbound oil and gas investments and project contracting are showing signs of post-pandemic recovery. A report from Fudan University finds that oil engagements in 2021 ($6.4 billion) exceeded activity in 2019 ($3.7 billion), though these are still far lower than volumes seen in the late 2000s and early 2010s.47 But the composition of power-sector investment may shift in the coming years. Around 60% of the 53 GW of power capacity in China’s Global Power Database with expected commissioning dates of 2022 or later (or with no announced commissioning date) are clean energy projects. These include around 17 GW of hydropower, 8 GW of nuclear and 6.5 GW of wind and solar.
Coal’s prominence in outbound power-sector investments has been waning in recent years. A study from the Central University of Finance and Economics reported that of the 52 coal-fired power projects outside China with Chinese financial participation announced between mid-2014 and 2020, around half were “shelved”; eight were cancelled and only one had gone into operation as of the end of 2020. Thirty-four projects had been under construction since 2014 and only 19 had gone into operation.48
An April 2022 study by the Center for Energy and Clean Air indicates that, while Xi’s pledge has accelerated the flight from coal, several types of projects may not be covered under it. Of the “86 GW (81 plants) of Chinese-backed overseas coal … currently in the construction and pre-construction pipeline,” it reports that:
- Around 12.8 GW (15 plants) have been cancelled since Xi’s pledge.
- Around 30 GW (36 plants) are currently under construction and thus would not be expected to count as “new.”
- 19.2 GW (18 plants) “fall into a grey area of Chinaʼs pledge; 11.2 GW have secured financing and permits to go ahead, and another 8 GW are captive coal projects linked to major BRI industrial parks in Indonesia.” These captive coal projects include two new projects that “secured construction and purchasing agreements from Chinese firms in 2022,” after Xi’s pledge.49
(ii) Mining Sector
Sector-level studies focusing on outbound investments and project contracting are more limited for key sectors in the low-carbon transition beyond energy. One exception is mining. China depends heavily upon raw metals imports to supply its manufacturing base, including key clean-economy manufacturing inputs such as nickel (80%+ imported as of 2016), copper (60%+) and iron ore (60%+).50
Most of these resources are purchased from international rather than Chinese suppliers. Ericsson et al. (2020) estimate the total share of global minerals and metals production by value controlled by Chinese companies outside China at 3.5% in 2018. (They estimate Chinese domestic production to be larger, but still just around 15%.)51 Farooqi (2018) reports that, as of September 2017, 43% of China’s 345 total overseas mining assets and projects were “inactive”.52
That said, Chinese mining investment has growing importance in certain mining segments and geographies. Chinese annual outbound FDI in mining projects surged in 2017–2019 to roughly $1.5–2 billion, having never exceeded $1 billion before. S&P Global analysts report “an increased interest in battery metals, specifically cobalt and lithium, over steelmaking materials, while gold and copper have continued to be central to China’s foreign endeavors.”53 Chinese companies controlled 23% of global lithium production in 2019 but spent $4.3 billion in deals for lithium reserves and resources from 2018 through mid-2021, as compared to $1.4 billion by US companies and $0.7 billion by Australians.54 Myanmar has become a major global producer of an important but niche set of clean-economy metals, heavy rare-earths, because of Chinese miners escaping stricter production controls and environmental regulations at home.55 Ericsson et al. estimate large production shares for Chinese companies of key clean-economy minerals in Africa as of 2018, including an 82% share of bauxite output and a 41% share of cobalt.56
Iron ore remains an area of interest in these outbound activities as well. The Chinese government’s steel industry road map calls for the country to achieve 45%+ self-sufficiency in iron supply for steelmaking by 2025 through tools including expanding Chinese equity holdings in overseas iron ore mines.57 A joint Chinese-Australian consortium is currently working to develop the world’s largest untapped iron deposit, Simandou in Guinea, whose estimated reserves equal seven years of Chinese iron ore demand.58
Recent disputes between Chinese mine operators and host governments underscore the risks that can accompany mining FDI. The government of Guinea suspended the Simandou project in March and July 2022 over disputes around transport infrastructure and equity structure.59 A Congolese court in early 2022 announced that it would take away one of the country’s largest copper and cobalt mines from Chinese ownership for at least six months while it investigated government accusations that Chinese owners had shirked billions of dollars of royalty payments.60 A review of controversies around 22 Chinese outbound mining investments notes that many were “in conflict-affected areas, or countries with poor governance, where social and environmental conflicts linked to mineral resource exploitation are endemic.”61 At the same time, it found that firms often prioritized “maintaining good relationships with authorities and elites, and avoiding interfering in local power structures…over the concerns of stakeholders about human rights abuses and environmental issues.”62 Similar issues have been discussed in hydropower, a market dominated by Chinese companies. Recent assessments suggest that Chinese safeguarding practices are improving as firms’ outbound experience has deepened, but that awareness gaps persist on issues such as community engagement and benefit-sharing.63