Europe: the centre of Chinese attention? September 2016

By the end of 2016 the Chinese will have invested a record sum in Europe, having smashed the total for 2015 (€23 billion, 44% more than 2014) by as early as June this year, with 119 on-going projects. Having already acquired Pirelli in 2015, ChemChina is interested in buying both the Swiss agribusiness and chemical company Syngenta for €43 billion and Kuka, the German robot manufacturer that is laying the groundwork for our industrial future (Industry 4.0.).

China’s state-owned banks and enterprises have orders to “Go global!” (zǒu chūqù). SOEs are responsible for 70% of the country’s acquisitions in Europe, which is a priority area in China’s internationalisation and innovation strategy. Acquiring cutting-edge Western companies is regarded as a major means for China to catch up, alongside a focus on R&D (2.1% of GDP).

This preference for Europe is based on the continent’s stable legal framework, degree of technological progress and mature markets. Trade between the two economic powerhouses has already reached €1.4 billion per day. The EU is China’s largest supplier and second-largest customer, though there is a significant imbalance (€410 billion versus €208 billion), which repeated calls by visiting European official to Beijing have done little to correct. The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China has publicly lamented the lack of reciprocity between the EU’s open policy on the one side and increasingly restricted access to the Chinese market on the other[1]

China’s interest has not been dampened by the spectre of Brexit, of which the Chinese authorities have been very critical (“Britons are already showing a losing mind-set. They may become citizens of a nation that prefers to shut itself off from the outside world,” according to the Global Times, the English-language edition of the People’s Daily’s Group). With the exception of real estate and the emission of Chinese renminbi bonds, Chinese corporations are concentrating their investments in Germany, Belgium, Italy and Greece (the port of Piraeus, one link in a logistical chain that also includes Port Said on the Suez Canal) and in the states of Central and Eastern Europe, which are participating in the so-called “16+1” platform with China. President Xi Jinping has paid visits to Serbia, Poland and Russia to promote his flagship OBOR (One Belt One Road) project, and along with the Polish President Duda, was there to welcome the arrival of the first cargo train of electronic goods from Chengdu in Sichuan province. Continental “connectivity” is a buzzword in Beijing – rail today, digital tomorrow.

France has a good image in China (diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic in 1964; attractive way of life and know-how[2]; home to talented architects and urban planners; over €20 billion of investments in China by 1,500 companies at 2,500 sites). It is seen as a country of advanced technologies that has robust financial institutions (the Caisse des Dépôts has launched a joint investment fund with the Chinese Development Bank) and is located in the heart of the European Union (which is important for the European headquarters of firms such as Haier, ZTE, Lenovo and Huawei). France also boasts the large expanses of fertile arable land (central France) that are lacking in China, which consumes a volume of agricultural produce that requires two and a half times its own total cultivated area. France is already host to over 200 subsidiaries of Chinese companies.

However, before it will recognise China as a market economy[3], Europe needs to seal a comprehensive investment deal, demand equal market access and develop defensive measures in industries where there is Chinese overcapacity (in the case of steel, this represents two and a half times total European production, creating a very real risk of dumping). It is up to the Commission to coordinate its members’ response and implement the decisions detailed in its “new EU strategy on China” published in June 2016[4]. This document primarily lays out the principle of opening the EU market to Chinese investments as long as they meet EU legislation and guarantee intellectual property rights. Suffice it to say that we can expect the negotiations to be long.

 

Michel Foucher

Former ambassador

Senior Advisor

Option Finance n°1380, 12th September 2016

 

[1] European Business in China, Position Paper, 2016-17, June 2016.

[2] See Atlas de l’influence française au XXIème siècle, Robert Laffont, 2013.

[3] See China, Learning to sail by braving the seas, in  http://www.cfjc.fr/actualites/la-chine-comment-%C2%AB-naviguer-en-bravant-les-vagues-%C2%BB-lettre-jacques-c%C5%93ur-n%C2%B01.html

[4] Joint Communication to the European Parliament and the Council: Elements for a new EU Strategy on China, JOIN (2016) 30 final 22/6/2016.