more Chinese tourists in Iceland

Almost 50% more Chinese tourists visited Iceland during the first eleven months of 2014 than during the same period the year before, says Xinhua. PM Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson tells the agency he’s happy about that and that his government seeks to increase cooperation between the two countries.

Sichuan Road & Bridge official arrested on corruption charges

Sun Zhong 孙忠, deputy GM and Party secretary at a Sichuan Road and Bridge Group (SRBG, 四川路桥) branch, has been arrested on suspicion of “accepting bribes”, the People’s Procuratorate of Sichuan Province (四川省人民检察院) informed yesterday. As I reported a fortnight ago, Mr Sun had been placed under investigation by Party organs and handed over to the court system after being found to have committed “serious discipline violations”, a standard euphemism for what the Procuratorate has now officially translated as corruption. Another former company official, Huang Jinping 黄金平, was likewise found to ‘seriously violate discipline’ in September.

The Sichuan procuratorate announced Mr Sun’s arrest and those of a few local officials in quick succession, without specifying if they are part of one corruption probe or rather coincidentally took place within a few days. The most prominent person arrested in the last couple of days has been former Chengdu assistant mayor Chen Zhengming 陈争鸣. Mr Chen had long served under disgraced Sichuan deputy party secretary Li Chuncheng 李春城 and his fall has been linked to Li’s. Li Chuncheng was seen as an ally of former security czar and Party bigwig Zhou Yongkang 周永康.

Sichuan Road and Bridge is building the steelwork for Hålogaland bridge in Norway, a major achievement for the company and the first such project with Chinese participation inside the Arctic circle. That tender was the object of a court case in Germany that ended with two four-year jail sentences, as I recounted a couple of weeks ago.

the end of Huang Nubo’s Icelandic saga?

The last few episodes in Chinese poet-tycoon Huang Nubo’s Icelandic saga saw his landlord-to-be, a company called GáF (for ‘Grímsstaðir á Fjöllum’) established by some northern Icelandic municipalities to help him rent the 300 km2 of barren land he had set his eyes on, spiral towards bankruptcy. People at the company decided to ask Huang straight up if he was still interested (‘paging Mr Huang‘), because otherwise it might be time to call it a day.

If Huang said anything in response, it must have been lukewarm at best because GáF are now saying they’ll abandon talks about the deal (RÚV).

In the home front, Mr Huang’s dispute with a local government over environmental permits for construction near Lake Qishu 奇墅 in Yi 黟 county, Anhui, seems not to have been resolved, at least judging from the fact that, as of today, he still appears in the Supreme People’s Court’s fine-dodger list (失信被执行人名单 or, as some prefer to translate, ‘List of Dishonest Persons subject to Enforcement‘). You can see the entry for him (his company Zhongkun 中坤 is listed separately) in a picture I twitted in October. My post from back then also offered his side of the story.

beware of the littoral-minded: China can’t be ‘just a passive onlooker’ of North Pole claims

So far there hasn’t been much of a Chinese media reaction to Denmark’s claim over a large swath of the Arctic, North Pole and all, as their territorial waters, something that has been called “the Kingdom’s greatest expansion since the Kalmar Union“. An article from last week, i.e. before the Danish official claim at the UN, in the ‘military affairs’ section of Sina does talk more generally about several countries “wrestling for control of the Arctic”, something China can’t afford to “just observe“.

Guo Peiqing 郭培清, a professor at the Ocean University of China (海大) in Qingdao and a well-known authority on Arctic issues, is quoted as emphasising the importance of the Arctic, both for its natural resources and as a shipping shortcut, from the point of view of the large resource needs imposed by China’s “peaceful rise” and long-term development. China can’t just passively watch while other countries scramble for the Arctic, the article adds, and must plan ahead and act to protect its legitimate interests in the region.

None of these views is new, and specifically people like professor Guo have consistently warned about the Arctic littoral states trying to keep the Arctic all for themselves.

As for specific coverage of the Danish claim, all Chinese media have had to offer thus far is short news sources to either the Financial Times or ‘Russian media’, such as this quickie making the rounds on Renminwang and elsewhere, which mirrors rather closely a TASS story and says right from the title that Denmark is claiming ’20 times their continental landmass’. Whatever the merits od the Danish claim, that number is a bit disingenuous since the roughly 900k km2 the Danes are asking for amount to less than half the area of Greenland, or, if you will, a meagre 25% of China’s own claim in warmer latitudes, also known as the nine-dash line or the Cow’s Tongue.

The TASS story those Chinese news items are drawing from appears to be a short English-language article that doesn’t quite shine for the editing standards you’d expect when discussing a high-stakes geopolitical intrigue: the article manages to refer to Denmark’s claim as “the Dutch application”. Now the Netherlands’ northernmost point does entitle them to be addressed as a ‘near-Arctic state’ (近北极国家)by Chinese standards, or they might for that matter even pull a Senkaku and ask for, say, Jan Mayen based on the exploits of the Noordsche Compagnie, but to my knowledge so far they’re staying put and leaving the Arctic alone. To be fair to the TASS editors, датский ‘Danish’ does sound a bit like ‘Dutch’, although according to Vasmer the words seem to be unrelated.

But the Russians have actually provided a more official reaction to the Danish ambitions, through natural resources minister Sergey Donskoy who said that the UN’s commission the Danes are claiming the North Pole at has actually no authority to give it to them. Mr Donskoy’s surname means ‘of the (river) Don Дон‘, just a soft sign away from Don’ Донь which was an old Russian name for Denmark.

Faroe gives up on Icelandic oil exploration next door to CNOOC

Faroe Petroleum, a sixth of which is owned by Korea’s KNOC through subsidiary Dana Petroleum, have handed back the license they had been awarded to explore for oil and gas under the seabed in the Icelandic sector of the Jan Mayen area, Iceland’s energy authority informs.

Íslenskt kolvetni or ARC, Faroe’s minority partner in the license, explain their exit from Icelandic oil exploration by pointing to the disappointing results of preliminary studies, that indicate that neither seismic data acquisition nor any other exploration method short of just drilling will help ascertain whether there is any oil down there. As I said in a background article a year ago, estimates about reserves in the Jan Mayen area are loaded with uncertainty due to the presence of a thick layer of basaltic lava. Ketill Sigurjónsson from consulting firm Askja is calling this a “prophecy that regrettably came true”: it was clear from the beginning that you had to drill through all that basalt to find out if there’s anything worth the trouble under it, and that all that drilling would be rather onerous.

The elephant in the room is of course CNOOC (中海油), the holder of another of the three licenses off Iceland. Their licensed area, that’s just next to the one Faroe have just given up on, would seem to be just as tricky to explore. They seem more upbeat though: last October they met with their Icelandic license partner, Eykon Energy, who told Icelandic TV data acquisition in their patch would start next year. Eykon officials have a record of optimism, to put it mildly, about the area’s potential.

this just in: another Sichuan Road & Bridge official under investigation

Sun Zhong 孙忠, the Party secretary at a Sichuan Road and Bridge Group (SRBG, 四川路桥), has been found to have committed “serious discipline violations”, usually a euphemism for corruption, and handed over to judicial authorities, Chinese media report. Party secretary Sun is the second victim of such investigations at the Sichuan government-owned company: Huang Jinping 黄金平, a former vice-general manager, met the same fate last September.

Sichuan Road and Bridge was awarded last year a contract to build steel structures for Hålogaland bridge in northern Norway, the company’s first project in a developed country and the first such contract for a Chinese company inside the Arctic circle. The offer that won the Hålogaland tender for SRBG, in tandem with a little-known Serbian partner, has also been the object of court proceedings, this time in Germany: a state-level court in Saarbrücken has recently found He Saizhong, a Chinese engineer, and his colleague Frank Minas guilty of defrauding their employer, DSD Brückenbau, by bidding for the Norwegian contract and then relegating DSD, who funded the bid, to the role of a subcontractor.

Eritrean mining official visits Sichuan Road & Bridge

Alem Kibreab, an high-ranking official from Eritrea’s Ministry of Mines and Energy, paid Sichuan Road and Bridge Group a visit last month. SRBG, though primarily builders of roads and bridges, as their name suggests, also have an interest in mining, specifically in Eritrea, a country where they have been active for quite a few years now.

A year ago, they signed an agreement to look for gold and other metals, and now they are talking about a second exploration project with copper as the main ore. SRBG’s is not the first Chinese mining venture in Eritrea: SFECO‘s gold project is much better known.

This blog doesn’t quite have an Eritrean focus. I often talk about SRBG because, in their capacity as bridge builders, they are building the steelwork for Hålogaland bridge in Norway, the first work of Arctic transportation infrastructure with Chinese involvement that I’m aware of.

a bridge too far: four years’ jail for ‘Sichuan Road & Bridge representative’ in Hålogaland bridge deal

A Chinese engineer who helped Sichuan Road and Bridge Group (SRBG, 四川路桥) win a tender to build the steelwork for a large bridge in Norway has been found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment by a German court, the Saarbrücker Zeitung reports.

As I’ve been repeating for a year now, SRBG won that tender in some sort of partnership with DSD, a German based group of companies with extensive experience in bridge building. Only that partnership was remarkably little talked about, and its nature remained unpublicised: the steelwork contract had been awarded to SRBG together with a little-known Serbian company somehow connected to a local DSD subsidiary. The nature of this partnership, it would now seem, wasn’t entirely clear to DSD themselves.

He Saizhong, a Chinese engineer who worked with DSD for years, was involved in preparing the Hålogaland bid for DSD, but then presented it as including SRBG and the Serbian company as bidders, with DSD only as a subcontractor and a company run by his and his accomplice’s wives in charge of managing the project, it emerged during the trial. Through this clever bypass operation, Mr He and his partner caused DSD large losses, though they claimed they weren’t motivated purely by greed but by a “fascination with bridge building“.

Back when the contract was signed, an announcement on the website of Statens vegvesen, Norway’s public road administration, had shown a picture of a radiant He Saizhong, captioned as a “representative from SRBG”.

The Hålogaland bridge, under construction in Narvik, a couple hundred kilometres into the Arctic circle, is to be the second longest suspension bridge in Norway. It’s the first project of its kind for a Chinese company in the area, and SRBG’s first contract in Europe, which it won by offering just 2.5% less than the second cheapest bidder, MT Højgaard from Denmark.

While their activities abroad are not that important (their most significant operations have been in Eritrea, Tanzania and the Federated States of Micronesia; a Russian foray might be in the works), SRBG have built some of the largest bridges in China, including for example the Xihoumen 西堠门 joining Zhoushan to the mainland and the Jingyue 荆岳 over the Yangtze in Hubei.

They also have a less stellar side though. In my 2013 article I detailed how, while their own bridges seem to fail quite seldom and under arguably exceptional circumstances, Chuanjiao (四川川交路桥有限责任公司), a company related to SRBG and with which it shared some of its top management at the moment, was responsible for a bridge that suffered a tragic collapse during construction in May last year.

Corruption isn’t unknown to them either. In 2008, a manager with SRBG admitted to bribing an official to help the company win the tender to build the Xinlongmen 新龙门 bridge near Chongqing. More recently, Huang Jinping 黄金平, who used to be a vice-general manager at SRBG and chairman at Chuanjiao, was reported to be under investigation for ‘serious discipline violations’, usually a euphemism for corruption.

At the moment there’s no indication of the German process affecting the project in Norway in any way, of course as long as they can go on without Mr He’s expertise.