Tag Archives: sanctions

Strangling China with Hong Kong: the Politics of Fear

The U.S. determination  that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from mainland China, under the Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, will have significant implications for the city’s exporters and businesses.  Sensitive U.S. technologies could no longer be imported into Hong Kong, and the city’s exports might be hit with the same tariffs levied on Chinese trade.

But the act doesn’t cover the far more extensive role Hong Kong plays as China’s main point of access to global finance.  As of 2019, mainland Chinese banks held 8,816 trillion Hong Kong dollars ($1.137 trillion) in assets in the semiautonomous city, an amount that has risen 373% in the last decade…. China’s banks do much of their international business, mostly conducted in U.S. dollars, from Hong Kong. With Shanghai inside China’s walled garden of capital controls, there is no obvious replacement.

While the U.S. doesn’t directly control Hong Kong’s status as a financial center, Washington has demonstrated its extensive reach over the dollar system, with penalties against Korean, French and Lebanese financiers for dealing with sanctioned parties. The U.S. recently threatened Iraq’s access to the New York Federal Reserve, demonstrating a growing willingness to use financial infrastructure as a tool of foreign policy.  Even though the U.S. can’t legislate Hong Kong’s ability to support Chinese banks out of existence, the role of an international funding hub is greatly reduced if your counterparties are too fearful to do business with you.

Putting the ability of Chinese banks to conduct dollar-denominated activities at risk would be deleterious to China’s ability to operate financially overseas, posing a challenge for the largely dollar-denominated Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative. It would also put the more financially fragile parts of the country, like its debt-laden property developers, under strain.  China’s hope to develop yuan into an influential currency also centers on Hong Kong’s remaining a viable global financial center—more than 70% of international trade in the yuan is done in the city.

Excerpts from Mike Bird, How the US Could Really Hurt China, WSJ, May 290, 2020

Who is Afraid of the United States?

In 2018 America imposed sanctions on about 1,500 people, firms, vessels and other entities, nearly triple the number in 2016. The past six months of 2019 have been particularly eventful. America began imposing sanctions on Iran in November, and in January on Venezuela, another big oil exporter. On May 9th 2019, for the first time, it seized a ship accused of transporting banned North Korean coal.

Second, blackballed countries and unscrupulous middlemen are getting better at evasion. In March 2019advisers to the un, relying in part on Windward data, and American Treasury officials published separate reports that described common ways of doing it. Boats turn off their transmissions systems to avoid detection. Oil is transferred from one ship to another in the middle of the ocean—ships trading on behalf of North Korea find each other in the East China Sea using WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging service. Captains disguise a ship’s identity by manipulating transponder data to transmit false locations and identity numbers of different vessels.

Such methods have helped Iran and Russia transport oil to Syria, American officials say. In 2018 North Korea managed to import refined petroleum far in excess of the level allowed by multilateral sanctions. The situation in Venezuela is different—technically, America’s sanctions still allow foreigners to do business with the country. But fear that sanctions will expand mean that traditional trading partners are scarce. Nicolás Maduro’s regime this month found a shipowner to transport crude to India, according to a shipbroker familiar with the deal, but Venezuela had to pay twice the going rate.

Businesses keen to understand such shenanigans can be roughly divided into two categories. The first includes those who can profit from grasping sanctions’ impact on energy markets, such as hedge funds, analysts and traders. A squadron of firms is ready to assist them, combing through ship transmission data, commercial satellite imagery and other public and semi-public information. They do not specialise in sanctions, but sanctions are boosting demand for their tracking and data-crunching expertise.

A main determinant of Venezuela’s output, for instance, is access to the diluent it needs to blend with its heavy crude. A firm called Clipper Data has noted Russian ships delivering diluent to vessels near Malta, which then transport it to Venezuela. Kpler, a French rival, uses satellite images of shadows on lids of storage tanks to help estimate the volume of oil inside. Using transmissions data, images, port records and more, Kpler produces estimates of Iran’s exports for customers such as the International Energy Agency and Bernstein, a research firm—including a recent uptick in Iranian exports without a specific destination (see chart).

The second category of companies are wary of violating sanctions themselves. They need assistance of a different sort. Latham & Watkins, a firm that advised the chairman of EN+, which controls a Russian aluminium giant, as he successfully removed the company from America’s sanctions list this year, has seen a surge in sanctions-related business. Refinitiv, a data company, offers software which permits clients to screen partners and customers against lists of embargoed entities. Windward uses machine learning to pore over data such as ships’ travel patterns, transmissions gaps (some of which may be legitimate) and name changes to help firms identify suspicious activity. Kharon, founded last year by former United States Treasury officials, offers detailed analysis of anyone or anything on sanctions lists.

HIde and Seek: Sanctions Inc, Economist, May 18, 2019

Fighting U.S. Sanctions: national payment systems

International payment operators Visa and MasterCard have started processing domestic payments inside Russia’s new national processing system, launched in response to U.S. sanctions against Moscow that saw cards from several Russian banks blocked in 2014. Observers see the creation of the National Card Payment System as the first step towards an autonomous financial system in Russia.

“The national system has already been introduced, quickly and at a little cost, and it has fully resolved the problem of payments inside the country,” says Sergei Khestanov, professor of finance and banking at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.  If Visa and Mastercard do not fulfill the requirements of the Central Bank, they will have to pay a security deposit, whose size will be linked directly to the turnover of the credit card systems. Morgan Stanley estimated the figure at $950 million for Visa and $500 million for MasterCard.

According to Khestanov, processing Visa transactions through the national system should be viewed as a compromise: The Russian government’s control of the transactions will strengthen, but the international systems will continue to operate in Russia.  “The potential of the development of the Russian cashless payment market is still enormous,” explains Anton Soroko, an analyst at Finam Investment Holding.,,,For the time being, experts are avoiding any clear-cut predictions of success, and say that Visa’s protocols are more complex than MasterCard’s. “We will see if this will be successful only after the infrastructure assumes the full burden,” says chief analyst at UFS IS Ilya Balakirev.

The next stage should be the Russian national payment system’s issuance of plastic cards, which is slated for December 2015.The picture is further complicated by the emergence of Asian operators as an alternative to western payment systems. Immediately after the introduction of sanctions against Russia by the U.S., the Chinese bank card system UnionPay entered the Russian market in April 2014, followed in March 2015 by Japan Credit Bureau (JCB). By 2017 Russia is planning to issue about two million UnionPay cards and three million JCB cards.

Excerpts from Alexei Lossan, Visa and MasterCard join Russia’s National Card Payment System, Russia Beyond the Headlines, Apr.  2, 2015

Iran Defeats Sanctions through Chinese Networks

A Chinese citizen faces U.S. criminal charges that he conspired to export to Iran products that could be used in that country’s nuclear program, the U.S. Justice Department.  Sihai Cheng supplied thousands of parts that have nuclear applications to Eyvaz, a company involved in Iran’s nuclear weapons program, in violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran, federal prosecutors said.

Sihai Cheng of Shanghai and Seyed Abolfazl Shahab Jamili of Tehran allegedly plotted between 2009 and 2011 to send pressure measuring sensors, or transducers, ordered from MKS Instruments Inc. in Andover, USA, to Eyvaz Technic Manufacturing Co., a Tehran-based business that has supplied parts to Iranian nuclear facilities.  Transducers are used in commercial products, but can also be used in gas centrifuges to convert natural uranium into a form suited for nuclear weapons, the indictment states.

Prosecutors said MKS Instruments sent the transducers to China without knowing they were ultimately bound for Iran.

In February 2009, Jamili wrote to Cheng that Eyvaz Technic was seeking to obtain a type of transducer. Eyvaz has “supplied parts for Iran’s development of nuclear weapons,” the indictment states.  After receiving the 2009 e-mail, Cheng allegedly plotted with unidentified coconspirators at MKS-Shanghai, a wholly owned Chinese subsidiary of MKS in Andover, to set up front companies to pose as the intended recipients of the materials, which were ordered from the Andover office.  In addition, MKS-Shanghai employees listed other legitimate Chinese companies as recipients in purchase orders sent to Andover, authorities said.  More than 1,000 orders for MKStransducers with a combined value of over $1.8 million were placed between April 2009 and January 2011, the indictment said. Once the parts arrived in China, Cheng had them shipped to Eyvaz, the Iranian company accused of supplying material for Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities.

Prosecutors wrote that MKS in Andover “unwittingly assisted MKS-Shanghai in fraudulently obtaining an export license for a large quantity of pressure transducers.”  Authorities say there is evidence MKS products reached the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility in Iran, which began operating thousands of gas centrifuges as early as 2007.  “Publicly available photographs of Natanz [with then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] show numerous MKS pressure transducers attached to Iran’s gas centrifuge cascades,” the indictment says.

Excerpt from Chinese national indicted in US over exports to Iran,  Reuters, Apr. 4, 2014 and from Travis Andersen and Jennifer Smith, Men accused of sending nuclear supplies to Iran, Boston Globe, Apr. 5, 2014

The US Campaigns of Attrition: Iran, Iraq

There is another…theory, that Iran will persist in its drive to achieve a bomb—or at least a break-out capacity to get one quickly if it so desired. The Iranians say they never trusted Mr Obama’s offer of detente early in his presidency because of the heavier sanctions and the campaigns of sabotage and assassination that accompanied the offer. In the same vein,they deplore the American administration’s recent decision to drop its longstanding classification of the exiled People’s Mujahedeen of Iran as a terrorist organisation.

So Iran’s rulers will not easily trust future pledges to lift sanctions in return for nuclear concessions. In any event, Iran’s leaders may now believe that such concessions would destroy the Islamic Republic’s credibility and open it to a recurrence of the unrest that followed Mr Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in 2009. So it is possible that an American policy of containment, even an undeclared one, might lead to a long campaign of attrition of the kind that impoverished Iraq in the 1990s, while leaving its leader in power.

Anticipating trouble, Iran’s hardliners have been stifling the remaining repositories of dissent as fiercely as ever. The most notable of these is Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an establishment heavyweight and former president who became an opposition figurehead after the contentious poll of 2009. The two most controversial of his five children—his daughter Faezeh and his son Mehdi—have recently been arrested, undoubtedly with the approval of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Mr Rafsanjani had been expected to put up a fight when Mr Khamenei tries, as he probably will, to install his own nominee as president in elections that are due next spring. But with his children behind bars, the former president may favour circumspection over principle.

Excerpt, Iran: Behind the rants, uncertainty grows, Economist, Sept. 29,2012, at 54