Less than six months ago, when trade disputes were draining Chinese investment into the United States, hopes were high that the world’s second-largest economy would turn to Europe. That optimism has proven short-lived.
Collectively, North America and Europe received $30 billion in direct investment from Chinese entities in 2018—a sharp 73 percent drop from a year earlier and the lowest level in six years, according to a recent report compiled by Baker McKenzie and Rhodium Group, an independent New York-based research provider.
In 2018, Chinese investment into Europe totaled $22.5 billion, down 70 percent from 2017′s $80 billion. The report pointed out that ChemChina’s $43 billion acquisition of Syngenta significantly lifted the 2017 number, but even without the Syngenta deal, the 2018 Chinese investment number would still see a 40 percent decline.
The U.K. received $4.9 billion from Chinese investors in 2018, down 76 percent from 2017, and still managed to be the largest receiver of Chinese investment among any country in Europe. The Netherlands and Switzerland also saw steep declines in Chinese investment while France, Germany, Spain and Sweden saw increases.
However, in December, the 28 member states of the European Union, following a surge in Chinese investment in recent years, agreed to coordinate on screening foreign investment, mainly from China. Individual countries, including France, Germany and the U.K., have all strengthened or are in the process of strengthening their investment screening regimes, according to Baker McKenzie, while others, including Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden, are considering beefing up investment review mechanisms.
The U.S. still accounts for a major part of the decline. Last year, Chinese outbound investment into the U.S. amounted to a mere $5 billion; that compares to $29 billion in 2017 and $45.6 billion in 2016, the report said.
Baker McKenzie said the decline in Chinese investment into the U.S. and North America—which received a combined of $8 billion from China—was mostly due to regulatory intervention by the Trump administration.
Rod Hunter, a Washington, D.C.-based international trade partner at Baker McKenzie and a former official at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, said confusing the U.S.-China trade conflict with U.S. investment policy may have led to market misperception.
“U.S. investment regulation remains exclusively focused on national security, and [the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States] has continued to approve Chinese investments even in the technology space,” Hunter said.
But CFIUS’s approval rate of Chinese investment under the Trump administration has dropped significantly—to below 60 percent from over 90 percent during the Obama administration, according to data compiled by Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. Specifically, the firm’s data indicated that between 2014 and 2017, four deals from China failed the CFIUS review, and five more abandoned the transaction. However, during the two years since Trump took office, 18 Chinese investments have failed before CFIUS, and two more were abandoned.
And CFIUS is no longer the only factor keeping Chinese companies from investing in the U.S. In November, the Justice Department issued indictments against Chinese chipmaker Fujian Jinhua Integrated Circuit Co. Ltd. and its executives on economic espionage charges. In October, the department charged a group of Chinese hackers with stealing trade secrets from American businesses.
Those followed the Commerce Department’s high-profile ban of Chinese phone maker ZTE Corp. from dealing with U.S. suppliers for violations of U.S. sanctions against Iran and North Korea. Sanctions violations are also behind a bank fraud allegation the Justice Department has made against Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., which led to the arrest of the Chinese company’s chief financial officer late last year in Vancouver, Canada.
And the tariff war the White House is waging against China is a result of a 2017 investigation initiated by U.S. Trade Rep. Robert Lighthizer using Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act. The law has rarely been used in such a manner since the 1995 creation of the World Trade Organization.
Elsewhere, countries are turning away from Chinese investors. Earlier this week, Australian health care group Healius Ltd. rejected a $1.2 billion takeover offer by a Chinese investor, citing, among other things, the unknown status of regulatory approvals in China and Australia. That followed the Australian government’s November decision to block a $9.5 billion proposal by Hong Kong-based CK Hutchison Group to buy Sydney-based pipeline operator APA Group on national interest grounds.
Canada saw its Chinese investment grow to $2.7 billion in 2018 from $1.5 billion in 2017, thanks to mining deals such as Xiamen-based Zijin Mining Group’s $1.4 billion acquisition of Vancouver-based miner Nevsun Resources Ltd. But Canada may not be the silver lining after all. Earlier this year, Canada banned state-owned China Communications Construction Co. Ltd. from buying engineering company Aecon Group Inc.
Relations between Canada and China got much dicier after Canada arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou and China then detained two Canadian citizens in China. According to a report by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., several Chinese carmakers have already halted plans to expand production into Canada.