This analysis delves into the concerns surrounding debt-trap diplomacy in Kyrgyzstan by examining a leaked loan contract of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for the construction of the Alternative North-South Road. This unique occasion—as contracts are usually shrouded in confidentiality—sheds light on the dynamics of BRI lending in the region and on a global level. The analysis considers the political and economic implications of China's investments in Kyrgyzstan, aiming at investigating whether the investment is geared toward exerting political influence, as has been suggested by the active political debate around the narrative of debt-trap diplomacy. While acknowledging the limited data available, this analysis neither finds application for debt-trap diplomacy nor an active attempt by Chinese entities to utilize contractual provision, even though on paper the contract could allow for the latter. Despite the lack of hard evidence, the paper contributes to the academic debate by shifting attention from broader geopolitical considerations and the debt-trap narrative, to increased scrutiny of contractual provisions in large-scale infrastructure projects, in which BRI lending indeed appears to differentiate itself.
On February 13, 2021, the new Kyrgyz president, Sadyr Japarov, startled China-watchers in an interview with the state news agency, Kabar. Referring to the large amount of debt that Kyrgyzstan owed to China, he stated that “if we do not pay some of [the debt] on time we will lose many of our properties” (Japarov 2021).
For years, experts have cautioned that China could leverage its global investments to pressure weaker countries politically and seize strategic assets in cases of default (Chefitz and Parker 2018; Chellaney 2017). Japarov’s comments appeared to confirm those fears of so-called debt-trap diplomacy.
This paper explores whether fears over debt-trap diplomacy in Kyrgyzstan are legitimate by taking a rare look into a Chinese loan contract, which is typically shrouded in confidentiality. Rather than finding support for any particular reading, this analysis opens up more questions and encourages a more detailed look at the contractual provisions of large infrastructure projects.
This analysis takes four parts. First, it breaks down China’s relationship with Central Asia through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Second, it profiles China’s investment strategy in Kyrgyzstan. Third, it explores the loan contract of the China-financed Alternative North-South Road in Kyrgyzstan. Finally, it considers the political and economic implications for Kyrgyzstan of China’s investments in the country.
It is vital to note that this analysis is largely a theoretical exercise. In light of a lack of publicly available BRI contracts, looking at a leaked contract enables us to open the black box and understand basic dynamics of BRI lending. Most critically, it gives us insight—albeit limited— on whether the concerns around debt-trap diplomacy are legitimate in Kyrgyzstan. That said, the paucity of data creates significant restrictions for this analysis: first, generalizing findings from a single contract for a worldwide investment initiative with more than 13,000 projects is tricky. The College of William & Mary’s database of 100 leaked BRI contracts reveals that lenders often use standardized language (Malik et al. 2021). As such, a close examination of the Alternative North-South Road agreement could provide useful insights on larger dynamics related to Kyrgyzstan’s overall debt exposure and relationship to China. It remains, however, speculative, as there is no hard evidence. Second, the debate around debt-trap diplomacy has introduced BRI lending as a tool for China to advance its geopolitical interest (Chefitz and Parker 2018; Chellaney 2017). After debating the viability of the debt-trap narrative, the analysis will theorize that if China were intending to further its interest, it could do so via the contract at hand. That, however, does not amount to a judgment whether this is actually taking place. In general, there appears to be no evidence that China has been actively enforcing contractual provisions for geopolitical purposes (Brautigam 2019). Hence, what this analysis adds to the literature is not a commentary on Chinese political strategy but rather a contribution to the academic debate itself, by shifting the focus from larger geopolitical considerations to closer examinations of the actual contractual provisions when analyzing large-scale infrastructure projects.
China's Strategic Problem
The Debt-Trap Argument
Skeptical observers have argued that China engages in debt-trap diplomacy by financing projects with little chance of success and, ultimately, collecting the right to those assets. The most common example is Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port. Here, the China Harbour Engineering Company—financed by the China EXIM Bank—built a port that many analysts argued was commercially inviable (Hillman 2018). As an economic downturn set in and Sri Lanka had to resort to an IMF bailout, the foreign exchange-reserves-strapped government looked for ways to raise funds. The poorly performing Hambantota port seemed to be a sensible option. After a brief bidding contest, China Merchants Port Holdings secured the rights to operate the port for 99 years (Brautigam 2019).
Kyrgyzstan maintains a high level of indebtedness to China at around 30 percent of debt-to-GDP as of 2021, making it one of the leading debtor nations in terms of percentage of GDP to Beijing (Aminjonov 2019a; Malik et al. 2021). Observers wonder whether this indebtedness makes Kyrgyzstan vulnerable to similar debt-trap diplomacy as has been reported in Sri Lanka.
The narrative of debt-trap diplomacy has repeatedly been rejected by the highest levels of the Chinese government as “groundless allegation” (Qin 2023). Rather, China characterizes the loans as critical to overcoming bottlenecks in developing countries that are full of potential but lack funding.
I: China’s Pursuit of Energy Security in Central Asia
In 2013, China chose Kazakhstan as the location to officially introduce its BRI plans. The selection of Astana over Beijing underscores the importance China places in Central Asia. Specifically, the region could be a centerpiece in China’s future energy strategy.
As of 2022, China imports 80 percent of its energy. Approximately, 80 percent of that energy comes from sea imports of oil and gas (China Power 2023). Beijing, however, worries that the U.S. Navy’s control over major sea lanes and chokepoints could potentially limit access to energy imports (Tata 2017).
As such, China has sought alternative land-based energy sources less vulnerable to U.S. interference.
Kazakhstan holds the world’s 12th-largest oil and gas reverses and has thus become an attractive energy partner for China (U.S. International Trade Administration 2023). In turn, Kyrgyzstan has gained regional significance as a critical gateway between China and Kazakhstan. Currently, however, Kazakhstan only exports about 5 percent of its oil and gas to China (Kumenov 2022).
As of 2022, bilateral trade between China and Kyrgyzstan stood at just about $9 billion USD (Observatory of Economic Complexity 2023). However, this relationship is growing. Kyrgyz exports of minerals to China grew by 48 percent between 2015 and 2019, and exports of mineral fuels and oils increased by 92 percent during this same period. Although Kyrgyzstan is hardly China’s largest economic partner in the region, the relationship is expected to grow as Beijing increasingly turns to Central Asia for its energy security. This strategic priority has motivated China’s investments to improve infrastructure and connectivity in the region.
Central Asian countries have welcomed this infusion of Chinese capital, especially given their difficulties achieving robust economic growth since the breakup of the Soviet Union (Eurasian Research Institute 2022). And whereas development lending from the IMF and World Bank frequently comes with policy conditionality such as the implementation of certain measures of inflation control or public spending, Chinese loans usually do not include such impositions, making them attractive loan options (IMF 1992).
II: China’s Investment Strategy in Kyrgyzstan
As of 2021, China has launched 46 BRI projects in Kyrgyzstan, totaling approximately $5.4 billion USD (Aminjonov et al. 2019a). Those projects primarily fall within the following sectors: trade and industrial development (17 projects), people-to-people projects such as financing schools and cultural institutes (13 projects), rail and road connectivity (11 projects), and energy connectivity (5 projects).
China has invested more than $1.7 billion USD in rail and road infrastructure, including highways designed to connect China, South Asia, West Asia, and Europe.
Looking at the wider region, Kyrgyzstan together with Tajikistan count the most projects labeled as increasing regional connectivity, presumably due to their proximity to China (Aminjonov et al. 2019a). The Alternative North-South Road that will be analyzed here is a good example: While it is a single project negotiated between the Kyrgyz government and Chinese companies, it is connected to a region-spanning road network.
While the impact of BRI lending on the GDP of Kyrgyzstan appears to be moderate, the debt levels deserve special attention. Bishkek has an overall debt-to-GDP level of 60 percent as of 2021, with about half of that amount owed to China. With 40 percent of the overall debt of Kyrgyzstan owed to the EXIM Bank of China, it makes the bank a central actor in the country’s economy. A report of the Center for Global Development has accordingly labeled the country at high risk of debt distress (Aidar 2018). While concerns about potential debt trap by China had already been motivated by the amount of debt, those concerns have reached a new level by Kyrgyz President Japarov’s remarks about the danger of losing property (Japarov 2021).
III: The Alternative North-South Road Contract
Large mountain ranges bisect Kyrgyzstan, separating the country’s two commercial hubs: Bishkek in the north and Osh in the south. Although the Bishkek-Osh highway connects the two cities, the narrow mountain pass is unconducive to major commercial transport. As such, Kyrgyz businesses have traditionally shipped goods through Uzbekistan to circumvent the precarious terrain.
However, railway connections through Uzbekistan halted in 1993 when post-independence Uzbekistan closed its border to travel (Mukambaev 2020). This development presented Bishkek with newfound urgency to increase north-south connectivity. The solution would be the creation of the Alternative North-South Road, which would not only connect the country’s two major economic hubs but also outlying towns such as Balykchy, Kochkor, Chaek, Aral, Kazarman, and Jalal-Abad, intending to spur nationwide economic development. Further, the road connects Kyrgyzstan to the surrounding region. With links to the road networks of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan, the Alternative North-South Road creates a unified transport corridor that bypasses Uzbekistan and provides Kyrgyzstan with improved access to India, Iran, China, and the rest of Central Asia. China’s Export-Import (EXIM) Bank has financed $750 million USD of the project’s $850 million USD overall costs.
The road is not without criticism. For one, it is expensive at about $2 million USD per kilometer of road (Mukambaev 2022). Considering the mountainous terrain, some observers have argued that a railway connection would have made transport quicker and easier. Additionally, the additional north-south connection may prove less relevant as relations with Uzbekistan have warmed in recent years.
Analysis of the Contract under Review
The Alternative North-South Road contract specifies a creditor-debtor relationship between the EXIM Bank of China and Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Transport and Communication over a total sum of ¥697,562,608.76/$298,796,966.13 USD. The contract states that “the goods, technologies and services purchased by using the proceeds of Facility shall be purchased from China preferentially, and the technical standards to be used shall follow relevant Chinese and international standards.” This is common for Chinese lending (Gelpern et al. 2021). The interest rate is 1.5 percent per annum—a rate that is both above OECD concessional lending benchmarks but also considerably lower than average BRI lending and the EXIM Bank’s average interest rate of 3.2 percent. This is important as it showcases the character of the loan, that lies somewhere in between concessional and commercial lending, which is however not unusual for lending to lower- and middle-income countries (Devonshire-Ellis 2020; Kyunai, et al. 2021; Malik et al. 2021).
No detailed collateral provisions. In contrast to President Japarov’s remarks, the contract does not state that infrastructure would be seized in the event of default. Somewhat surprisingly, the contract does not include anything that could be considered collateral, with the only potentially relevant detail being the unusually high management and commitment fees, which resemble an escrow arrangement. An escrow arrangement is a form of collateral in which the borrower pays parts of the proceeds into an escrow account controlled by the lender. Although this is not exactly the case here, the contract obliges Kyrgyzstan to pay 0.36 percent in management and commitment fees, into a Citigroup account in New York. Overall, the amount of fees might be considered as something that might come close to a collateral, but is, however, an almost negligible fraction of the protection that a lender gets in an actual collateral arrangement.
Confidentiality Arrangements. The Alternative North-South Road contract includes very similar confidentiality provisions as those used in many BRI contracts. The agreement specifies that “the Borrower shall keep all the terms, conditions and the standard of fees hereunder or in connection with this Agreement strictly confidential.” Since 2014, every EXIM Bank agreement features such a provision (Gelpern et al. 2021). As the authors point out, confidentiality provisions are indeed common. However, quite interestingly, in comparison to OECD lending contracts, which are commonly used as benchmarks for concessionary lending, the confidentiality provisions are restricting the lender. Here, the power over the disclosure of information is moved to the EXIM Bank, as the disclosure of information to third parties requires “prior written consent of the lender.”
This is significant from the perspective of debt monitoring and the role of the public to keep their government in check. The primary problem with confidentiality agreements like this is that the public has no knowledge of the extent of their indebtedness, creating several potential issues. It misleads the public as to what amount of public expenditure goes into debt servicing. It impedes sound fiscal management, as policymakers are conditioned to keep real condition of the economy undisclosed. Lastly, it leads financial market agents to evaluate a country better than they actually would, were the real debt burden revealed (Gelpern et al. 2021).
No Paris Club Clause. The contract on the Alternative North-South Road includes a so-called “No Paris Club” clause. A Paris Club arrangement is a situation where, in cases of default, multiple creditors negotiate together with the debtor to reach an agreement on debt settlement. The incentive on the side of the creditors is that by negotiating in unison, they can increase their negotiating power. Being part of a Paris Club arrangement moreover includes comparable debt arrangements for all participants. That means that if A and B were parties to the negotiation, A would not get a significantly superior deal than B.
The contract at hand explicitly excludes such a Paris Club arrangement: it stipulates “the borrower hereby represents, warrants and undertakes that its obligations and liabilities under this Agreement are independent and separate from those stated in agreements with other creditors (whether official creditors, Paris Club creditors or other creditors).”
To exclude debt renegotiation arrangements in such a matter is atypical in debt financing. It has, however, been a persistent part of BRI lending, with 81 percent of EXIM contracts featuring such provisions (Gelpern et al. 2021). The incentive to remove oneself from a Paris Club settlement is not obvious. The underlying motivation could be that lenders believe they can get better treatment unilaterally than in a consortium. This would suggest that the BRI lenders consider their negotiation power to be extremely strong. There have been no empirical cases in Kyrgyzstan that would justify such an assessment. However, the size of Chinese lending could make this thinkable. With a Chinese debt-to-GDP level of 30 percent, it is conceivable that Bishkek would need to treat its biggest creditor separately. However, it is not only the pure size of the debt that matters.
Default and Cross-default Clauses. A cross-default clause is a specific kind of default clause, which specifies situations in which the lender can demand a full repayment of a loan based on a default of the borrower on other, unrelated obligations. This implies that, in theory, the lender can call a default, even if the project is perfectly solvent, based solely on the borrower defaulting on a different project. In severe cases, if large shares of debt are associated with such cross-default clauses, a lender could cause serious financial distress to the borrower country by demanding immediate payment based on a single or a few unrelated projects failing.
While it is not known how much of overall Kyrgyz debt to China is associated with such cross-default clauses, 98 percent of the Chinese loans around the world that were analyzed by Gelpern et al. (2021) have such provisions. Therefore, it is highly likely that this also goes for a large share of Kyrgyzstan’s debt.
The contract of the Alternative North-South Road also includes such a cross-default provision. The contract states as a reason for default “any other event which constitutes a default of the Borrower occurs in respect of any other agreement involving the borrowing of money or any guarantee between the Borrower and any other banks or financial institutions.” This is notable as it essentially ties the amount of debt to all the other outstanding foreign debt obligations in the country.
To gauge how likely a cross default is, it is important to look at ordinary default clauses. The contract at hand here includes policy-related provisions, stating that “where there occurs any change of the laws or government policies in the country of either the Lender or the Borrower, which makes it impossible for either the Lender or the Borrower to perform its obligations under this Agreement, the Lender may (…), terminate the disbursement of the Facility, (…) without further demand, notice or other legal formality of any kind.” In comparison with other Chinese debt contracts, it is notable that the contract at hand employs softer, but also vague language. According to Gelpern et al. (2021), other debt contracts explicitly state that actions that go against any PRC interest can trigger a default. If that were to be the case, it could influence Kyrgyz policy toward China at a bigger level. It is noteworthy that the contract does not explicitly specify the circumstances under which the borrower or the lender may find it impossible to fulfill its obligation.
The vagueness of language appears to open a wide field of possible outcomes whose likelihood is difficult to determine. It is, for example, thinkable that a deterioration of Chinese-Kyrgyz relations could lead the Chinese Ministry of Commerce or Foreign Ministry to address Chinese companies to stop their operations. Such provisions can, for instance, be found in other BRI contracts (Gelpern et al. 2021). Therefore, such default clauses in combination with the cross-default provisions could in theory lay the foundation of Kyrgyzstan needing to restrict its policy space potentially with regard to China. If antagonizing China could risk a default, assuming that most Chinese debt includes cross-default provisions, Chinese lenders could cause a default of 30 percent of GDP of Kyrgyzstan. It is important to iterate that this might just as well not be the case, given that other lending contracts are confidential. However, given that 98 percent of Chinese lending includes cross-default clauses, it is a scenario that would be concerning for Bishkek (Gelpern et al. 2021).
It is important to note, however, that such a political reading is only one way to look at the contractual clauses at hand. Expansive cross-default provisions could however also follow an entirely economic rationale. Large infrastructure projects generally face the risk of being nationalized and taken away from foreign operators and developers. This could mean that after the most important steps of construction, the Kyrgyz government takes over the project and defaults on the loan. Given the lack of collateral as safety in the agreement, there is little that the EXIM Bank or the China Rail and Bridge Corporation could do against that. Such cross-default provisions could hence serve as a cushion of safety, as if the government were to nationalize one project, it would risk the failure of many others under development.
IV: Contract Implications for Kyrgyzstan
The analysis of the Alternative North-South Road contract opens up many further questions, rather than giving clear answers. It is essential to note that extrapolating these findings to all BRI lending in the country or region requires an inductive leap. While much of Kyrgyzstan's debt is provided by the EXIM bank, and Chinese lenders use similar provisions worldwide, theorizations remain at the end of the day speculative.
Keeping this limitation in mind, the question arises regarding what it means if the provisions found in the Alternative North-South Road contract would apply to all Kyrgyz BRI debt.
What, firstly, can be said is that there are no provisions regarding asset seizure in the contract. Rather, in cases of default, the Chinese lender seems to carry the majority of the damage. Therefore, it seems like Jarapov’s remark, which motivated this analysis, does at least not find application here. To follow the analysis of Gelpern et al. (2021), who did not find such a provision in their study of 100 BRI contracts, it would be highly unlikely for any Kyrgyz BRI projects to have this provision. This has significant implications for the academic debate of BRI lending, which has thus far focused disproportionately on the debt-trap paradigm. Based on the results of the analysis of the contract, it appears that scholarship has been looking in the wrong places: if China were to seek to exert influence, it could rather do so via contractual arrangements than via asset seizure.
Based on the results of the analysis of the contract, it appears that scholarship has been looking in the wrong places: if China were to seek to exert influence, it could rather do so via contractual arrangements than via asset seizure.
Theoretically, this could be done via interplay between default and cross-default clauses. Cross-default clauses can link a particular project to the entirety of outstanding debt obligations, making the default of any project sufficient reason for all Chinese-owned debt to be called in default. This would mean, that in the worst-case scenario, assuming each Chinese contract incorporates such provisions, Kyrgyzstan would be faced with a demand of immediate repayment amounting to 30 percent of its GDP.
The problem stemming from the size of the debt could be exacerbated by the types of projects that are financed. BRI lending particularly finances road infrastructure, energy connectivity, and mineral and petroleum exploration—in other words, critical infrastructure. While critical infrastructure might not be directly seized, the fact that it is financed with the analyzed provisions could still be problematic for Bishkek. Kyrgyzstan, like any country, depends on the operation of this critical infrastructure. Particularly, the mountainous terrain in the country has led to the development of various small economic centers, making the infrastructure connecting these regions, like the Alternative North-South Road funded through BRI loans, vital for both national economic unity and regional integration. The funding in the energy sector as in the case of the high-voltage power lines and thermal power plant is an important backbone of social and economic life. Potential default on these projects could risk disruption of basic economic and social functions.
To close, it should however be noted that thus far, the exerting political influence via contractual arrangement is only a theoretical possibility. As it stands, there appears to be no evidence that Chinese entities would use the contracts they enter in such a manner (Brautigam 2019). This could lend more credence to an economic reading of default and cross-default provision, seeing them as a protection against the nationalization of assets.
What can be said with certainty however, that the contract of the Alternative North-South Road differentiates itself from customary infrastructure lending, by virtue of the contractual provisions (Malik et al. 2021). This is what makes it worthwhile to cross-reference the findings here with the work that has been done AidData center, which was able to collect 100 BRI contracts.
Patterns in Chinese lending
While 100 contracts are admittedly a small share of the existing BRI projects, it is the most comprehensive insight that scholarship has so far into the modalities of BRI lending. It is worthwhile to note that all contracts, including the one analyzed here, were accessed from publicly available sources and either leaked by investigative journalists or civil society organizations.
Anna Gelpern et al. (2021) conducted perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of this database to date. They narrowed down the following characteristics of Chinese lending along the BRI: strict confidentiality provisions that prohibit disclosure of the contract terms by the creditor; collateral arrangements such as lender-controlled bank accounts, and exclusion of debt from collective restructuring agreements (absence of Paris club-clauses); and default and cross-default clauses that could link different Chinese projects to each other. Moreover, no provisions for asset seizure were found in any of those contracts.
Finding the same dynamics in the larger set can make us more confident about the findings that were outlined. Seizing critical infrastructure according to the debt-trap reading does not appear to be a part of BRI contracts, as far as data is available. The default and cross-default clauses examined by Gelpern et al. (2021) could be potential pathways to exert influence. However, as the authors also show, thus far, that has not been done in the examined projects, hence it appears to be rather a theoretical possibility than a reality. What remains and can be stated for sure is that BRI contracts differentiate themselves from established infrastructure lending.
This analysis has yielded noteworthy results. To some degree, it seems to stipulate that the literature on Chinese geoeconomics has been looking from a singular perspective. The classical debt-trap diplomacy that was suggested by Japarov and that has been dominating the media reporting around BRI lending, does not find application. Rather than via “seizing” physical assets, if Beijing wanted to exert political influence, it could do so via contractual arrangements. Openings could be found in the examined contract in the form of confidentiality arrangements, exclusion from collective restructuring arrangements, as well as default and cross-default clauses. This could be a problem for Kyrgyzstan due to the large amount of debt it owes to China.
Nonetheless, it should be reiterated that there have been no documented instances where China or Chinese companies have actively used contractual arrangements to influence running projects or call a default. Therefore, there is little that can be definitively established about the political nature of BRI lending.
The findings should pose two challenges to scholarship: Firstly, it should discern in more detail the association between BRI lending and the debate around Chinese political interests. It should raise the question to what extent the geopolitical framework is the most effective lens to examine the BRI and to whether the economic and social dimensions of the undertaking should attract greater shares of attention. It should also motivate a shift away from the dominating debt-trap narrative to a closer reading of the actual contractual provisions. Secondly, what stood out is that BRI contracts feature unique provisions that can differ from customary infrastructure financing arrangements. Given the documented large infrastructure gap across the globe for middle-income and developing countries, it is a challenge for scholarship to discern the most effective and sustainable approaches toward financing the required infrastructure (Bhattacharya et al. 2012). BRI lending from perspective can be considered as a frontier topic that deserves closer study.
That is, of course, easier said than done, given the stringent confidentiality requirements in the contracts. To structure infrastructure projects as efficiently and sustainably as possible however, more disclosed information would be helpful. It should be noted that increased accountability is also in the interest of China, particularly in the Central Asia region. Having more information on the modalities of Chinese lending could not only help Chinese entities to design more efficient and sustainable projects, it could also encourage more private and public third parties to participate. Such a crowding in of investment could spur the economic integration that is vital for the region.
*This article was edited by Justin Schuster (Princeton University), Ahmad Mobeen (National University of Singapore), and Ellen Swicord (Princeton University).
Michael Schroeder is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, focusing on investment in sustainable infrastructure and renewable energy. He holds an LLM from Yenching Academy at Peking University and a BA in Philosophy and Economics. Michael has worked in and on emerging markets in green, sustainable, and equitable investment and capacity-building.
 All citations are taken from the original contract, which has been attached in the appendix.
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