The face of development finance is changing. China is quickly becoming one of the world’s largest overseas investors, measured by the amount of money it directs overseas. Many of these projects are large-scale, high impact projects involving natural resources. They're reshaping the relationship between investor and recipient countries, as well as posing opportunities for environmental and social initiatives.

This issue brief analyzes the opportunities and challenges faced by Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and policy banks as they invest overseas. It provides insights about how to move forward in the development of environmental and social policies as they relate to risk management.

Executive Summary

Like other countries that invest overseas, China—through the projects it finances and executes—can bring great benefit to the countries and communities in which it invests (“host countries”). However, investments can pose challenges and risks to host and investor countries. Effectively tailored environmental and social policies can identify and mitigate not only unanticipated environmental and social harm, but also some of the investment risks that can undermine the long-term financial success of a project.

Even in the midst of the 2008–09 global financial crisis, China’s outward foreign direct investment (OFDI) continued to grow.1 Between 2008 and 2009, China’s OFDI flows grew nearly 8 percent, while total world OFDI flows during the same period decreased nearly 40 percent (Unctad Stat 2012). In both 2009 and 2010, the Export-Import Bank of China and the China Development Bank together lent more than the World Bank did to developing countries (Dyer, Anderlini and Sender 2011).

Environmental and Social Policies in Overseas Investments: Progress and Challenges for China examines trends in China’s overseas investments and considers how social and environmental policies can reduce investment risks and enhance the positive impacts of China’s OFDI. We focus on three major forces in China’s OFDI: the central government, financial institutions, and centrally owned state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Although a variety of institutions are involved in overseas investments, the majority of Chinese OFDI originates from centrally owned SOEs, and its OFDI growth is fueled largely by the strong lending capacity of its financial institutions, especially the China Development Bank and the Export Import Bank of China. Aid, trade, and other types of financial interest that may be associated with overseas economic interests are not addressed here, nor are overseas investments by collectively or privately owned companies.

As China continues to expand overseas investments, understanding and managing the environmental and social impact of these investments in host countries can help it build mutually beneficial relation-ships with host countries. Already, methods to address environmental and social issues in overseas investments are emerging in China. Chinese regulatory authorities are creating guidelines in their areas of jurisdiction, and individual financial institutions are developing and refining their own policies. International experience with environmental and social risk mitigation offers a useful context for Chinese investors and policymakers to consider as they continue to develop these overseas investment policies.

Moving forward, China faces several challenges, not the least of which is a lack of understanding of the regulatory and legal environment in host countries. Attention to host countries’ regulatory and legal environments must be ratcheted up if investment risks are to be reduced. Supervisory challenges and coordination among ministries should also be prioritized. Finally, even though governments, financial institutions, and corporations have produced multiple guidelines and policies to guide more sustainable overseas investments, implementation remains a major challenge. Sufficient resources should be directed toward implementation to overcome barriers such as cost, coordination of resources, and time.

While these challenges are real, China’s rapid economic growth and global presence also create opportunities that offer insight for a global audience. China can shape the direction and return of its OFDI to maximize positive impact and achieve “win-win” relationships with host countries. As an experienced recipient of OFDI, China can now apply those lessons as it invests abroad. In addition, China can step into facilitator and leadership roles in the international agenda of promoting sustainable cross-border investment, especially in developing countries.

This issue brief is the first in a series of WRI publications by the International Financial Flows and the Environment (IFFE) project that examine the role of environmental and social policies in overseas investments. Future publications will look at the “business case” for adopting stronger environmental and social policies, and will include case studies of overseas investments from China and other countries.