Founded in 2002, UnionPay International is the global arm of China UnionPay (CUP). CUP, or simply UnionPay, was established by the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), China’s central bank, with 85 domestic banks as shareholders. It is a payments network and card scheme, similar to Visa, Mastercard and Verve, Interswitch’s bank card.
Over the last 15 years, the Chinese scheme has grown to become one of the biggest card brands and payment networks in the world. According to Reuters, a Chinese central bank decree requires all card issuers, including foreign ones, to process their yuan-based transactions through UnionPay’s electronic payment network.
This has given the company de facto monopoly over local currency payments. There are more than 7.6 billion UnionPay bank cards floating around the world, more than double its closest rival Visa which has 3.4 billion cards. Its cards are accepted in 170 countries by over 40 million merchants and over 2m ATMs.
Thanks to its Chinese dominance, UnionPay has the biggest market share, 36%, in global card payments, ahead of Visa (32%) and Mastercard (20%).
Yet UnionPay has a very limited reach outside China. Majority of its bank cards are used in mainland China, with only 130 million cards (out of 7.6 billion) issued abroad, mostly to Chinese tourists. Outside China, UnionPay is responsible for just 0.5% of card payments globally, way behind Visa (50%) and Mastercard (31%).
Its small global footprint is also tied to the fact that the Chinese currency, the Yuan or Renminbi, is not a popular currency for international transactions. In 2010, yuan-denominated international payments represented 1%, or less than $850 billion, of cross-border trade settlement.
Over the last ten years, the Chinese government has made bold moves to internationalise the yuan. After replacing Japan as the world’s second-largest economy, China sought to challenge the US dollar dominance of international transactions.
An important push to achieve this is the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) announced in 2013. Officially called One Belt One Road, BRI was declared one year after President Xi Jinping became president of China.
BRI is a soft power strategy. It aims to improve China’s economic and cultural influence across Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America. The initiative is committing billions of dollars annually to infrastructure financing and other programmes in participating countries. A number of African countries are on board, including Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia and Tanzania.
BRI plays a key role in China’s attempt to internationalise the yuan and UnionPay is riding on it.