Speaking at the 13th annual meeting of the China-Russia Commission for Energy Cooperation that took place on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said Russia would welcome Chinese investment in its energy sector. The chairman of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) Wang Yilin responded in a subsequent interview that his firm is interested in increasing its share in the Russian oil giant Rosneft. But there’s a catch: the Chinese will invest only if they get the right to participate in Rosneft’s management—of course “in full accordance with the stake bought,” Wang added.
CNPC already has a share of Rosneft, although its exact size remains undisclosed. All that is known is that in 2006, the Chinese bought a 0.6 percent stake in Rosneft at its IPO. The major stockholders of Rosneft are the state-owned Rosneftegaz, which holds 69.5 percent of the shares, and BP, which holds 19.75 percent. In January, President Vladimir Putin announced that the Russian government would sell 19.5 percent of Rosneft this year, as well as some shares in Bashneft, Alrosa, Sovkomflot and VTB—all large corporations with significant government stakes. As of May 30, a 19.5 percent stake in Rosneft was valued at $10 billion on the Moscow Stock Exchange.
Rosneft’s finances went bad shortly after buying TNK-BP for $55 billion in 2013. The Russian company did not have cash on hand for the deal, so it borrowed over $30 billion from Western banks. Three years later, nobody can explain the rationale behind the acquisition. The deal appears to have been driven by the personal ambitions of Rosneft’s CEO Igor Sechin, who happens to be a close friend of Vladimir Putin. Tumbling oil prices coupled with questionable management decisions from Sechin resulted in Rosneft’s total market capitalization dropping below the sum paid for TNK-BP by the end of 2014. (It is worth mentioning in passing that Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller in 2008 predicted oil would reach $250/barrel in the immediate future, and that both he and Sechin publicly derided shale oil and shale gas as a “fraud” and a Ponzi scheme as late as 2013.)
But not only did oil prices fall; the Russian ruble halved in value, and Rosneft began to buckle under various financial sanctions after Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Sechin ran to the government, asking for a 1.5 trillion ruble bailout—a figure conspicuously close to the amount paid for TNK-BP a few years back. Sechin argued that the government should support Rosneft, since U.S. sanctions prevented it from getting loans on international markets with a longer maturity than 90 days. The requested 1.5 trillion rubles were more than Russia’s spending on medicine, education and housing combined in 2014.
The money Sechin asked for was to come out of the Russian National Wealth Fund—one of the two emergency funds created in 2008 out of the Stabilization Fund, an initiative of former Finance Minister Alexey Kudrin. The National Wealth Fund was originally meant to support the country’s pension system, but was tapped in 2014 as a source of funding for various bailout schemes. Sechin’s request was met with strong resistance by the Finance Ministry, reportedly because Rosneft did not include a detailed budget of how the funds were to be used. Rosneft then scaled back its demands, asking for help in funding projects to develop new fields; all the proposals were also rejected. In May of this year, Sechin turned directly to the Russian Central Bank for financing. Given the unexpected pushback it has received from the government thus far, getting money from the Chinese might just be the most expedient path forward for Rosneft.
If the deal happens, Rosneft would become the next big beneficiary of a major Chinese investment in the Russian economy since Vladimir Putin announced he would turn the country to the Far East in the aftermath of his annexation of Crimea. In May of 2014, the Russian firm Gazprom became the first when it signed an agreement with the above-mentioned CNPC for the construction of the Power of Siberia pipeline to China. At the time, Gazprom proudly announced it would receive $400 billion for gas deliveries to China over the next 30 years. By August of 2015, however, it was becoming clear that the Chinese had bargained well. The contract did not fix the gas price, but rather tied it to market rates—an immediate problem for Russia given the current state of the market. Putin, in the throes of his crisis with the West, clearly needed the deal far more than China’s Xi Jinping did. The Chinese read their partners well.
China has been successfully negotiating sweet deals with the Russian over more than just mineral wealth. A year ago, a Chinese company received a 49-year lease on 285,000 acres of agricultural lands in the Zabaikalye Region. And in April of this year, China announced it had agreed with Russia to move several of its factories to Russia’s Far East. Analysts in Russia are beginning to worry that the Chinese are taking advantage of them as their economy declines, and are pointing to how China has behaved in Africa.
A hoary old rule of investing advises to buy low and sell high. China certainly seems to have internalized at least the first part of the adage. And Beijing, for all its talk of building alliances, has never shown a desire to dispense charity to its partners in need. On the contrary, China’s leaders have tended to opportunistically profit from others’ weaknesses.
Russia, apparently, has yet to learn this lesson.