New piece: Norway, Mongolia and ‘normalising’ Chinese sanctions

A lot has been written about Norway’s normalisation of relations with China after six years of boycott. Most of what I read boils down to either ‘it’s good for seafood’ or ‘it’s a national humiliation’. I thought it could be interesting to assess how much the agreement is worth to China as foreign policy ‘goods’, rather than how much of a win (or loss) it is to Norway. China spent an amount of effort on enacting (more or less covert) diplomatic and trade sanctions against Norway, and after a few years won a sort of (non-)apology from Norway, together with, more importantly, the ‘normalisation’ of covert sanctions as a tool for extraterritorial enforcement of its policies on dissent. I’d say the existence of those two quantities is clear to everyone involved, as is the fact that they add up to a net policy win for China, but the question is how big a win it was. So one thing I set out to do was clarifying the nature and ‘cost’ of the Chinese sanctions against Norway. It turns out the sanctions were very shallow, with hardly any significant effect on China-Norway trade, let alone on the Norwegian economy. If you look at the numbers, rather than basing your analysis on literary criticism of the Beijing joint statement, you’ll see that the ‘normalisation’ agreement indeed handed China a considerable victory.

I guess you could say that such is the nature of relations between countries the size of those two, and that such an assymetric end result can’t beused to judge the expertise of the Norwegian diplomats and policy makers involved. I’m not going to discuss their policy-fu, although word has it that the Norwegian ambassador in Beijing, Svein Ole Sæther, did work on his tennis skills during his long tenure. (As of press time, it’s not clear to me if he learnt Chinese; at any rate, as any fule no, 闲中好,尽日松为侣。) But one way to approach the issue of whether this big victory for China was the only possible result is to look at another example of Chinese sanction policy: Mongolia after the last Dalai Lama visit. Now Mongolia is very different from Norway in many ways, especially vis-à-vis China, but it’s probably the best approximation to the Norwegian case. China sanctioned both countries for (how to put this) allowing non-state local entities (the Nobel committee and Buddhist clergy) to interact with individuals the Party-state dislikes (Liu Xiaobo and the Dalai Lama). In both cases China threw a diplomatic tantrum, and applied sort-of-covert economic sanctions. In both cases the boycott ended with deniably contrite statements of ‘acknowledgment’ of China’s ‘core interest’. And those statements, remarkably enough, came out within days of each other, for reasons that probably involve larger geopolitics than the relations with these two countries. So I think the comparison is warranted.

Now to do that comparison you need to do the same thing as in the Norwegian case: look at what the sanction policy against Mongolia looked like, and what China got in return. Here it’s easy to see that sanctions against Mongolia were potentially crippling, what in turns also means they were somewhat risky for China (you don’t normally want to destroy an economy that overwhelmingly depends on you). That part is uncontroversial. On the other hand, the ‘win’ for China has been reported as Mongolia ‘banning’ future Dalai Lama visits, which indeed would be a big concession were it true. Only it isn’t. In fashionable parlance, it’s ‘fake news’, or maybe guidance of public opinion, which I think can be traced back to a specific Xinhua story. To put it briefly, the Mongolians stated their non-apology through Mongolian media, then Chinese media spun it out of control. To understand how big the Mongolian concession actually was, you need to go to Mongolian-language sources and that’s another thing I did.

The details of the analysis of the less known among these quantities (the costs and ‘wins’ for China, Norway and Mongolia) are in my latest piece for the CPI Analysis blog, reposted by The News Lens with slightly modified spelling (and the Chinese bits in traditional characters). Next week I’ll post an extended version on this blog, including the numbers I used to measure the impact of sanctions on Norway, and more details from the work of Chen and Garcia, the authors of what I think is the best analysis of the salmon boycott.

did a Greenland minister plan to visit Taiwan? [UPDATE: yes he did]

In a mystifying exchange at the regular Chinese foreign affairs ministry press conference, someone asked spokesman Geng Shuang 耿爽 if China had forced Greenland’s trade minister to cancel a visit to Taiwan last November. Here’s Geng’s answer, as published by the English-language MFA website (it matches the Chinese version just fine):

We stand firmly against any forms of official contact and interaction between Taiwan and countries that have diplomatic ties with us. The Chinese side appreciates Denmark’s adherence to the one China principle. As Denmark’s autonomous constituent country, Greenland should follow the foreign policy upheld by Denmark.

So, was a visit to Taiwan planned and then cancelled? A delegation including Vittus Qujaukitsoq, the Greenland minister (naalakkersuisoq) whose portfolio includes trade, certainly was all around China in late October and early November last year, as I reported at the time. They were in places as distant as Qingdao and Chongqing promoting different Greenlandic products, so it would have made perfect sense to go to Taiwan as well. Only without the minister, since taking an official to Taiwan would obviously generate a crisis with China.

As it happens, a Greenlandic trade delegation did visit Taiwan, only without the minister and while he was in China. In written comments to Sermitsiaq, the relevant Greenland government department denies there were any plans for the minister to go to Taiwan, a decision they took of their own accord rather than under Chinese pressure, even while they are “acquainted” with the One-China policy (i.e. the contention that Taiwan is a Chinese province).

It’s hard to imagine anyone in Greenland would have considered sending a minister to Taiwan, which makes Geng’s answer, without denying Chinese pressure to prevent a visit, only more mysterious.

[UPDATE, Jan 7: The mystery has been solved. Berlingske now says it was them who asked the question at the MFA press conference. Invitations had been sent for a ‘Greenland Day’ event in Taipei the minister would attend, but the he didn’t go, after China showed unease. The event proceeded without him.

And indeed, after reading the Berlingske story I went to the Facebook page of the Danish Trade Council in Taipei, where as late as October 19 a post linked to invitations to the event at the Taipei Regent, in English and Chinese, “on behalf of the Greenlandic delegation headed by the Ministry of Industry, Labour and Trade, and Foreign Affairs, Vittus Qujaukitsoq.” The minister was scheduled to open the event with a “welcome” at 9AM.

It’s quite remarkable the visit was organised thinking the Chinese wouldn’t notice or care, considering how much the Greenland gov’t care about cultivating relations with China. This has probably been Greenland’s first lesson on China’s ‘core interests’.]

China’s CNOOC now only player in Iceland oil

Ithaca Energy and minor partners Petoro and Kolvetni have handed back their oil and gas exploration permit for a sector of the Icelandic Jan Mayen area after seismic exploration yielded disappointing results. Another license holder, Faroe Petroleum, had already given up already in late ’14. That leaves only one active license, whose operator and majority owner is China’s state-owned CNOOC (中海油), in partnership with local company Eykon and Norway’s Petoro.

CNOOC have been exploring in the area. Their local partner Eykon have talked of plans to continue exploring and shown optimism about the results so far. Eykon have a record of optimism on the probability of finding oil off Iceland, and have at different times aired estimates in the high gazillions. Judging by the consistent lack of interest in Iceland from oil majors, even when oil prices were high, no one in the industry shares that optimism. Except CNOOC of course.

For an older but deeper look into CNOOC and Icelandic oil, there’s always what I wrote back when they bought the license.

General Nice’s Greenland subsidiary under compulsory dissolution [UPDATED: now back in GN’s hands]; accounting docs ‘disappeared’

After last week’s news about a HK subsidiary of General Nice (俊安集团) going into liquidation and a general picture of problems with creditors, it has now emerged that their Greenland subsidiary, London Mining Greenland A/S, is undergoing a compulsory dissolution process (tvangsopløsning). According to Sermitsiaq, a request to have the company dissolved was filed at the Court of Greenland in August 2016. The distressed Greenland subsidiary owns the mining license for the Isua iron mine.

Sermitsiaq also talks of accounting problems related to the transfer of London Mining Greenland from its previous owner to General Nice in late ’14. All accounting materials for that year appear to have disappeared: the location of “electronic data as well as physical documents” was unknown at the time of compiling the following annual report.

In other General Nice news: a North Sydney office building GN’s HK-listed arm North Sydney bought for $50m in ’13 to try and offset losses in their main business (mentioned in my General Nice backgrounder) is now part of an asset restructuring, and should end up being at least partially owned by Huarong, the asset manager that has also taken over management of the HK-listed subsidiary.

[UPDATE (Jan 3): Sermitsiaq reports today that two weeks ago the Court of Greenland allowed General Nice to retake the Greenland subsidiary, after four months under management by a liquidator. The reason for the dissolution order was that the company had failed to produce an annual report on time. Other than the report, a requirement to come out of dissolution was a capital injection, which apparently also happened. It remains unclear whether those missing documents related to the transfer to General Nice have materialised.

So the Isua mine in Greenland is back in General Nice’s hands for the time being. It remains to be seen whether the company’s dire situation in Hong Kong will affect the Greenland subsidiary.]

General Nice subsidiary forced into liquidation

A company part of General Nice Group (俊安集团), the Chinese coal and iron trader that owns Isua iron mine in Greenland, has been ordered into liquidation by Hong Kong’s High Court, after a petition by Australian creditors. The company, General Nice Resources (Hong Kong) Ltd (俊安资源(香港)有限公司), is not directly connected to the Greenland project, but there is an indirect link: Isua is owned (through a Jersey company) by another Hong Kong entity, General Nice Development (Hong Kong), which has a 40% stake in the company that has just fallen into liquidation. Thus, while the Greenland mine’s ownership and management remains unaffected, a subsidiary of its owner has just been ordered to wind up.

The liquidation petition was launched by KordaMentha, an Australian insolvency firm appointed by General Nice as receiver of Pluton Resources, the owner of an iron mine on Cockatoo Island, WA. KordaMentha are said to be owed several million AUD for expenses incurred during their time at Pluton, where General Nice have a controlling stake. Pluton has seen a good amount of drama in the last couple of years, with disputes between General Nice, a Chinese partner, a Chinese client and Australian contractors, including multiple, at one time simultaneous, receiverships, a police intervention, and litigation in Hong Kong and Australia, up to the Supreme Court. To the extent what I’ve read about Pluton can be summarised in any meaningful way, General Nice claim they’ve been pumping funds into Pluton to keep it alive despite low iron prices, while everybody else claims General Nice owe them money.

Last year, another creditor, Baosteel subsidiary Ningbo Steel (宁波钢铁), had asked for General Nice Resources HK to be wound up. General Nice acknowledged the debt, but sued back, arguing Ningbo Steel were trying to hurt their reputation. Ningbo eventually dropped the liquidation petition and apparently got paid, but GN’s case against Ningbo went on for some time. In a nutshell, GN say Ningbo’s petition was defamatory and frivolous as they were going to pay anyway, while Ningbo say the petition was justified since they got paid thanks to it.

But there’s more. General Nice Group, including the Greenland licence-holder, is ultimately largely owned by its chairman, Cai Suixin 蔡穗新, and his family. (I wrote an overview of the Group some time ago.) Another recent Hong Kong court order targeted Cai directly. In late October, a High Court judge forbade Cai from removing assets from Hong Kong (or to keep at least US$20m within HK). The order was requested by a Mainland bank.

And still more. Besides that Mainland-related injunction against Cai, two more banks are trying to claim debts, according to Oriental Daily News. A month ago, Société Générale filed bankruptcy petitions against Cai Suixin and his sister Cai Suirong 蔡穗榕, who’s also involved in various companies in the Group. And in yet another case, last week HSBC petitioned the High Court attempting to recover mortgaged property in the Le Cachet (嘉逸轩) development in Happy Valley (跑马地) from Cai Suirong.

General Nice’s Arctic foray is not easy to interpret. The takeover of the Isua mine, which has no development perspectives in the medium term, and the (thwarted) attempt to buy a derelict naval base in Greenland (something I’ll be writing about soon), don’t seem to make much sense as commercial investments for a company that could use some profits. Perhaps the value of these Arctic moves is favour with state entities (including SOEs) related to them, rather than directly generated profits.

[Update, Dec 30: General Nice Group chairman Cai Suixin 蔡穗新 and high executive Lau Yu 柳宇 are resigning from their posts at the Group’s Hong Kong-listed company, “for personal reasons and hoping to devote more time to other business.” Their replacements come from Huarong 华融 Asset Management, a large state-owned company specialised in distressed assets, that is said to be in the process of restructuring some other General Nice assets.

The Hong Kong-listed company is not related to the Isua mine in Greenland. The company gone into liquidation discussed in this post is a shareholder in it. I explained the (rather colourful) history of the listed arm here.

A story by Walter Turnowsky about the General Nice Resources liquidation, referencing this post, appeared today in the online edition of Greenland paper Sermitsiaq.]

Shenghe investment in uranium+rare-earth mine “implements vision reached during minister’s meeting with Greenlanders”

Shenghe 盛和 Resources’ investment in the Kvanefjeld project was made “in order to implement the vision” on mining cooperation “reached at the time of a meeting between minister of land and resources Jiang Daming 姜大明 and Greenland officials in 2015”, according to information published by the IMUMR, the state institution that controls Shenghe. The IMUMR is under Jiang’s ministry.

The acquisition, first announced in September and completed in the last few weeks, gives Shenghe one eigth of shares in Greenland Minerals and Energy (GME), the ASX-listed company running the Kvanefjeld project, as well as the right to appoint a non-executive director (Wenting Chen) to its board. This makes Shenghe the largest individual shareholder GME. Once the project receives an exploitation permit, Shengha could eventually increase its involvement to a 60% stake, a possibility whose presence in the September agreement GME took pains to deny and later confirm. GME’s initial unwillingness to acknowledge Shenghe’s stated intentions was perhaps due to a wish to avoid eliciting negative reactions in Denmark, where news about increasing Chinese presence in Greenland feed security worries.

The IMUMR’s explicit reference to the Kvanefjeld investment as part of a “vision” is another sign of the key role the Ministry of Land and Resources has in China’s moves in Greenland. GME’s talks with Shenghe did indeed start in 2015, possibly after those ministerial meetings. Until then, the Kvanefjeld project looked more likely to be developed with another state-owned company, China Nonferrous (中色), as envisaged by an earlier (non-binding) agreement.