Bloc wants to reduce dependence on Beijing’s money. But amid the turmoil of the Ukraine war and technological demands, many are questioning that stance. Germany’s ruling coalition is considering allowing Chinese state-owned shipping giant Cosco to take a stake in a Hamburg port terminal, government sources have revealed. to the Reuters news agency this Tuesday (October 25).
Cosco originally planned to buy a 35% stake in logistics company HHLA’s terminal in Hamburg. The compromise, reportedly advocated by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, would be for Berlin to approve the sale of 24.9% of one of its four container terminals to Cosco. However, Germany’s economy and foreign affairs ministries are advising against the deal, even with changes.
China is “a rival with an alternative vision”
The proposal comes after EU leaders agreed that China should be seen primarily as a rival promoting an “alternative vision of world order”. Last week, the 27 leaders discussed ways to reduce dependence on China for technology equipment and minerals used to make microchips, batteries and solar panels. However, at the national level and among experts, opinions are divided about the best course of action.
“China will not disappear. On the contrary, it will become increasingly important,” says Martin Jacques, one of the world’s leading experts on China and board member of the China Institute at Fudan University in Shanghai: “Europe needs an informed strategy on this rather than an automatic response to ‘security’ factors, which it can be a generic phrase to say ‘no’,” he told DW.
Some analysts make precisely this strategic connection between economic interdependence and security issues. “We can expect increasing levels of Chinese assertiveness – especially if its economy does not recover – and increasing attempts to exploit Europe’s existing trade dependence,” predicts Matej Simalcik, executive director of the Central European Institute for Asian Studies (CEAS), a think tank based in Europe, in Bratislava, Slovakia.
Ruslan Stefanov from the Bulgarian think tank Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD) believes that the EU should learn from the experience with Russia, where, led by Germany, the bloc “fell into Putin’s trap like a sleepwalker.” “Europe has increased its dependence on Russian gas even after the invasion of Crimea in 2014. But companies leaving Russia are now rushing to invest in China.”
Cosco’s acquisition of the port of Piraeus in Greece in 2016 was the highlight of Chinese investment in the EU, with 44.2 billion euros flowing that year, including a stake in French carmaker PSA. Chinese investment in the bloc fell between 2016 and 2020, partly due to Donald Trump’s pressure on foreign allies to avoid doing business with China.
But there was a brief recovery in 2021, according to consultancy EY, with direct investment from China in the EU and the UK rising by 17% to €10.6 billion from €7.9 billion in 2020.
The increase was dominated by the €3.7 billion acquisition of Philips by Hong Kong-based private equity firm Hillhouse Capital. Activity in the automotive sector was mainly driven by Chinese investments in batteries for electric vehicles. These two sectors accounted for 59% of total investments. The next three largest sectors were healthcare, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, information and communication technology and energy.
Reasons for the slowdown include increased domestic investment by the Chinese government as part of its so-called “Made in China 2025” policy, which aims to position the country as a global technology powerhouse. The world’s second largest economy has also been hampered by tight capital controls, reduced financial incentives and restrictions dictated by Covid-19.
On the European side, China’s direct economic investments have been slowed by screening mechanisms put in place to weigh the national security risks of those investments. This is partly related to the fear of the spread of “corrosive capital”, i.e. external sources of financing that lack transparency, accountability and market orientation.
“The EU’s investment screening mechanisms still scrutinize transactions in the US with much greater intensity than those coming from China,” says Eric Hontz, director of the Center for Responsible Investment in Washington: “We need to better understand capital flows [da China]the real beneficial owners of the company and the legal framework and its risks at the origin of the investment.”
According to EY, Chinese companies are increasingly involved in venture capital financing, making data collection difficult. Datenna, a Dutch firm that tracks Chinese investment in Europe, found that 40% of 650 such applications in 2010 and 2020 had “high or moderate involvement of state-owned or state-controlled companies.”
Small companies in focus
The next phase of Chinese infrastructure investment in the EU is unlikely to look like previous ones, at a time when Beijing is increasingly turning to smaller companies in an attempt to stay under the radar of European scrutiny.
According to London-based consulting and investment firm GP Bullhound, Tencent was the most active Chinese investor in Europe at the end of 2021. Five of the six deals involving European fintech were done by the tech conglomerate, including investments in French payment platform Lydia, German company Billie and Polish company for Gruby Entertainment game software.
The most attractive sectors for Chinese venture capital investment in Europe are biotechnology, clean technology, financial technology, e-commerce, gaming and artificial intelligence. In 2021, Chinese venture capital funds and cryptocurrency funds more than doubled their funding in Europe to a record level of €1.2 billion, mostly concentrated in the United Kingdom and Germany. Another way to avoid EU screening is greenfield investment, that is, the construction of research and development centers and partnerships with European universities.
EU divided or united?
Whatever the EU’s decision, some guarantors are concerned about the lack of unity within the bloc on how to deal with Chinese investor pressure. Eric Hontz believes that China is “picking winners and losers” to exert significant economic pressure, causing friction between EU member states. “If we replace gas produced in Russia with solar energy and wind energy produced in China, where will Europe end up?”
So how should the EU do business with China? “In one word: carefully,” Hontz points out, adding that the EU must recognize that this is not the China of 15 years ago, eg “Xi’s apparent intention is not to maximize the prosperity of the people, but to increase the power and influence of the state.”
Martin Jacques has a different perspective, asking: what has come out of China’s investment experience so far? “It seems to me that the investment from [montadora chinesa] Geely was instrumental in turning Volvo into an increasingly competitive force. Much better than the previous owner, Ford, who ran it to the bottom.”
European skepticism towards Chinese investment could be motivated by “a new Cold War and a Sinophobic mentality,” speculates Jacques. “Is that good or bad? Personally, I would say bad. Europe needs to act independently of the US and have its own way of thinking and relating to China.”