Time we scrutinised China’s tax treaty practice, too

Democracy in action: David Gauke at Monday's delegated legislation committee session

Democracy in action: David Gauke at Monday’s delegated legislation committee session

On Monday the UK parliament took a total of 17 minutes to scrutinise new tax treaties with Zambia, Iceland, Germany, Japan and Belgium. I’ve complained before about how paltry these debates tend to be, and was all set for another blog along those lines. There was, indeed, much to grumble about. No questions from the opposition about the UK’s renegotiated treaty with Zambia at all, a week after the IMF warned that developing countries should exercise “considerable caution” when entering into tax treaties.

Instead, Labour’s Shabana Mahmood asked how the UK’s treaty making priorities were set, and why there is no treaty with Brazil. The response from the Minister David Gauke was considerably less informative than what I’m sure Mahmood could have found out by asking, say, her colleague Stephen Timms, Gauke’s predecessor.

But something interesting did come up when Gauke was introducing the Zambia treaty. He noted that the withholding tax rates have been reduced in line with Zambia’s treaty with China. And indeed they have. It seems to be China, often regarded as the champion of source state taxation at the UN tax committee, which is responsible for the lower withholding tax rates. I’m going to explain here why I think both the UK and China have questions to answer about these treaties.

The UK-Zambia renegotiation: a missed opportunity

The UK-Zambia renegotiation looks like a ‘balanced package’, meaning that Zambia will have gained and lost in roughly equal measure. Looking at the treaty, I don’t think it can be seen as a win for Zambia.

What it lost was withholding tax rates. Zambian tax on dividends to British portfolio investors will be reduced under the new treaty from 15% to 5%, and tax on royalty payments for the use of British intellectual property will drop from 10% to 5%. This matches what’s in the 2010 Zambia-China treaty [pdf], so it looks like Britain was keen to keep its investors competitive relative to their Chinese competitors.

By way of context, Zambia’s non-treaty rates are much higher, 15% and 20% respectively. We can argue about the economic case for this level of withholding tax, but treaties are not just about rates, they’re about the right to raise rates. It will be five years before Zambia can re-examine these low withholding rates in its treaty with the UK.

What Zambia got in return for the reduced withholding tax rates was the UN concept of services permanent establishment, which will allow it to tax services provided within Zambia by British businesses or individuals. To do so, Zambia won’t need them to have a physical fixed base in Zambia, as it would have done before, but it will need them to be physically in Zambia, furnishing services, for at least 183 days in a given year.

(There are also some modernising changes, which may in practice benefit Zambia more than the UK. This includes simple anti-abuse wording such as the “beneficial owner” clause in the withholding tax articles and a “property rich companies” clause into the capital gains article. It also includes information exchange and assistance in recovery articles. These should be good for Zambia, if it takes advantage of them. The information exchange clause could, for example, allow Zambia to get hold of country-by-country reporting on British companies if that proposal is implemented by the OECD.)

But the overall picture, taking into account the lower withholding taxes, is of a treaty that is still much more disadvantageous to Zambia than one based on the UN model would have been. I’m not even sure it’s a better position than the OECD model. Since Zambia was not nearly as aggressive at negotiating after independence as, say, Kenya, it started this renegotiation from a lower base: already low withholding taxes, no taxing rights over British airlines, limited capital gains tax rights, and no right to tax management fees, to name a few examples.

In a context in which some countries are re-examining their tax treaties with developing countries, and organisations such as the IMF are calling into question the benefit of tax treaties on current terms, there would have been a strong case for the UK to seek not a balanced negotiation, but a reapportionment of taxing rights towards Zambia, in line with the UN model. It’s a real shame that the treaty slipped through parliament on Monday without anyone at least asking about this.

China is driving the falling withholding tax rates

This argument for a more pro-source taxation treaty between the UK and Zambia would be easier to make if the 2010 China-Zambia treaty had been more generous. But in fact the terms of the two treaties are near identical. On the face of it, it seems quite likely that Zambia has been bounced into this renegotiation to help keep British mining, agriculture and manufacturing companies more competitive in the face of competition from China. These companies will benefit from the lower withholding tax rates but are unlikely to be affected by the services permanent establishment quid pro quo.

The IMF report talked about “strategic spillovers” from tax policy, in which one country’s policy pushes other countries towards a response. I’m now starting to wonder if China’s negotiating stance might be having just such a strategic spillover, contributing to the decline in withholding tax rates in treaties also picked up by the IMF. Below you’ll see that China’s treaties with sub-Saharan countries have the lowest withholding taxes in a sample of countries investing into Africa.

Withholding taxes in treaties with sub-Saharan countries, 1973-2012

Withholding taxes in treaties with sub-Saharan countries, 1973-2012

China’s treaties are newer than other countries’, so what if this trend is just an artefact of the general decline? Not so if we look at just the last 20 years, where the story is much the same, with only Mauritius (which has several zero withholding tax treaties) having a more advantageous treaty network.

Withholding taxes in treaties with sub-Saharan countries, 1993-2012

Withholding taxes in treaties with sub-Saharan countries, 1993-2012

Let’s now test whether those three Chinese treaties in Africa are typical of China’s treaties more generally. This time we’re looking at all low-income countries. Not only is China the largest signatory of treaties with this group among my sample, it also emerges as one of the most demanding negotiators.

Withholding tax rates in treaties with low-income countries, 1993-2012

Withholding tax rates in treaties with low-income countries, 1993-2012

Withholding taxes are of course only one part of the source-residence balance in a tax treaty. I took a quick look at the China-Africa treaties, and – aside from the services permanent establishment.- there is no sign that they include pro-source provisions such as withholding taxes on management fees, or a “limited force of attraction”. It’s been well-documented that China favours expansive source taxation in its treaties with outward investors, while denying them to capital-importing developing countries.

The UK-Zambia treaty seems to be an example of a strategic interaction between two countries, one (the UK) with a longstanding investment base in Zambia, and the other (China) posing a threat to that investment. It’s all very well to criticise countries like the UK for not being more generous in negotiations with developing countries, but in doing so, critics should be careful not turn a blind eye to countries outside the OECD, who may even be the ones leading the race to the bottom.

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