Friday, July 06, 2007

McClatchy did a big feature on the little bank in Macau, Banco Delta Asia.

Stanley Au, the bank’s principal stockholder, is adamant about getting his bank back.

The US Treasury is resisting, not a surprise, since the bank’s “potential for recidivism” under Au’s leadership was the rather lame justification for not giving Banco Delta Asia a clean bill of health after BDA and the Macau Monetary Authority spent 18 months jumping through Treasury’s hoops on improved anti money laundering (AML) practices—the ostensible objective of the Patriot Act Section 311 investigation.

The interesting piece of news is that the Chinese government is apparently backing Mr. Au:

China, which took back control of Macau from Portugal in 1999, has quietly come to Au's defense, resisting U.S. pressure to force him to sell the bank, saying the pressure amounts to interference. Quinones said senior Chinese officials had told him that "if the U.S. Treasury Department begins to intrude into private banking and business, then foreign investors will pack up and leave."

That posture has put Beijing at loggerheads with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who hails the use of financial sanctions to rein in "rogue" nations and terrorists, and encourages other nations to give their finance ministries similar tools.

I think Henry Paulson and Treasury are asking China to save U.S. face by letting them have Stanley Au’s head on a pike, so we can claim that we weren’t wasting the world’s time for a year and a half on BDA.

As I wrote concerning the sorry denouement of the Strategic Dialogue, it’s always dangerous to presume on a Chinese friendship, especially if you admit that you’re in a weak position and want a little help from your buddies in Beijing to look good.

In the BDA matter, beyond the pleasure of beating the dog in the water (exploiting the opposite party’s unfavorable position to gain additional advantage and administer some rough justice), I suspect the Chinese feel that Treasury, instead of asking the them to acquiesce in the sacrifice of their loyal ally, Stanly Au, has to make amends for all the heartburn that its Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence inflicted on them.

My take on the Chinese state of mind is that they deeply resented the bullying that OTFI subjected them to in its quixotic effort to cut North Korea off from Chinese banks, typified by the notorious remark by the mastermind of our hardline anti-North Korea policy, David Asher, that the move against BDA was an exercise in intimidation against Chinese banks, “killing the chicken to scare the monkeys”, as he put it.

The message the Chinese received from the U.S. climbdown on the North Korean funds in BDA—arranging the remittance to Russia via the Fed—was that Patriot Act Section 311 investigations against foreign banks are not mere matters of U.S. domestic regulation.

The U.S. government can no longer hide behind the feeble fiction that these investigations are not an exercise in foreign policy, or that the State Department and the President are helpless to intervene in what they pretend are Treasury’s tenacious, apolitical efforts to protect the U.S. financial system against criminal and terrorist contamination.

And the fact that the Six Party Agreement was held hostage to the hardliners’ BDA vendetta for over three months probably convinced the Chinese that putting the Patriot Act Section 311 tiger back in its cage—or beyond the reach of determined bureaucrats willing to unleash a devastating regulatory assault on Chinese banks—is a matter of considerable importance and urgency.

To the Chinese, I believe it’s time for the U.S. government to acknowledge the foreign policy dimension of Patriot Act Section 311 investigations targeting Chinese banks, and make their imposition and resolution the subject of explicit prior bilateral negotiations between Beijing and Washington.

In particular, I think the Chinese have told the State Department that any unilateral Treasury Department actions targeting Chinese banks will be interpreted as--and responded to--as a hostile piece of anti-diplomacy.

And I don’t think Henry Paulson is going to get anywhere with the Chinese until he privately assures them that Patriot Act investigations against Chinese banks--and demands on Chinese regulators that go beyond AML processes and infringe on Chinese sovereignty--are off the table, and confirms the concession publicly by acquiescing to Stanley Au’s return to BDA in some form.


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