Over April and into May this year I traveled to speak about China across Eastern, Southern and Northern Europe. What were the common observations that struck me across all those very different economies?
Firstly, all are interested and intrigued by the possibilities of greater involvement with China. Serbia, Greece and Latvia have all heard of, and are trying to work out the meaning of, the Belt and Road Initiative. The Greek and Serbian leaders even attended the high-level summit on this issue held in China in mid-May. The concept as it has been unrolled in Beijing might formally involve mostly Central and South Asian partners—but it seems that Eastern Europe thinks of itself as a viable part of the new concept. Even in Denmark, about as far from the Belt and Road routes as it is possible to imagine, there are attempts to try to link with what it might mean and what new opportunities it gives to work with China.
The second observation I could make was that for all the excitement and willingness to engage, the actual examples of sustainable, high-quality Chinese foreign direct investment to point to as models for future projects are few and far between. In Serbia, there has been talk of a train line funded by China from Belgrade to Hungary's Budapest. But so far, it hasn't gone ahead. The Belgrade airport has also been presented as a potential object of Chinese investment. In Greece, the highest profile Chinese interest to date is the ownership of the Port of Piraeus, acquired after the 2009 economic crisis. In Denmark, there has been little so far. The same is true for Scotland, Switzerland, and the other countries I went to.
People hope for and have an interest in getting Chinese investment. But so far, there is very little of it around, and most of that is not high profile. In view of China's proactive stance, and its increasingly global prominence as an economy, what are the reasons for this?
My travels made me realize that one of the main reasons is that there is clearly a mismatch of expectations. On the one hand, European countries, particularly in the east, which group themselves under the Central and Eastern European alliance, have limited experience of Chinese investment. They just have a very large appetite. But their hopes are far too high. They almost regard Chinese involvement as a kind of gift. One commentator in Serbia complained to Chinese attending the event I was at that China should "give" more for greenfield investment. They needed to be more active and increase the volumes coming. The same attitude existed elsewhere.
This is curious. China is a very recent outward investor. This has been something that has only really started to occur in the last decade or so. The numbers of experienced Chinese overseas investors, either in the state or non-state sector, are very limited. No wonder Chinese companies prefer to work with foreign strategic partners (like BP in Africa) or go for mergers or acquisitions (as Geely did for Volvo a few years ago) where at least they are acquiring not just assets and brands but experience. We forget that China is a new actor in this space. And that a lot of the time, it is still learning. It does not want to overcommit, overstretch, and expose itself to unnecessary risk. To use an English idiom, it does not want to run before it can even walk. And as a foreign investor, at the moment, it is still in its early infancy.
Added to this is the similar lack of European experience of working with Chinese investors. Investment, after all, is a two-way street. There needs to be some mutual cultural understanding, and infrastructure to help a new partner. China simply does not get this anywhere in Europe. It is often reliant on the ethnic Chinese diaspora. Even there, it experiences many problems and blockages. The fascinating case of the city of Hamburg in Germany illustrates this, a place where even a decade ago there were over 500 small Chinese investments (mostly in aftersales, leasing and logistics because of the port in the city), most of which did not succeed.
To top all of this, there is the simple fact that any Chinese investment in Europe (or the U.S., Australia, or anywhere else for that matter) occurs in environments where the current main actors—state-owned enterprises, or large non-state companies like Huawei or Alibaba—are simply not well understood. They arouse media interest, speculation, claims of political direction, and sometimes simply hit huge public perception obstacles. This makes the appetite for potential Chinese partners even more restrained. They have to think not once, or twice, but sometimes three times before going abroad.
In view of that, it is surprising not that there is so little, but so much, Chinese money going abroad. This is mostly because it is driven in the end by ambitions and imperatives to globalize that override all the potential pitfalls above. In the end, the main lesson I learned over the last two months of traveling is that everyone has to be realistic. To use a Chinese saying from the early years of reform in the 1980s, they have to simply "seek truth from facts."
The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and director of the Lau China Institute at King's College London
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