Chinese firms speed up Belt and Road acquisitions despite crackdown

HONG KONG • Mergers and acquisitions by Chinese companies in countries that are part of the Belt and Road Initiative are soaring, even as Beijing cracks down on China's acquisitive conglomerates to restrict capital outflows.

Chinese acquisitions in the 68 countries officially linked to President Xi Jinping's signature foreign policy totalled US$33 billion (S$45 billion) as of Monday, surpassing the US$31 billion tally for all of last year, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Unveiled in 2013, the Belt and Road project is aimed at building a modern-day "Silk Road", connecting China by land and sea to Southeast Asia, Pakistan and Central Asia, and beyond to the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

At a summit in May, Mr Xi pledged US$124 billion for the plan, but it has faced suspicion in Western capitals that it is intended more to assert Chinese influence than Beijing's professed desire to spread prosperity.

The surge in Chinese companies' acquisition-linked investments in the Belt and Road corridor comes as the volume of all outbound mergers and acquisitions from China has dropped 42 per cent year on year as of Monday, the Thomson Reuters data showed.

Beijing's move to prop up the yuan by restricting the flow of capital outside the country and clamp down on debt-fuelled acquisitions to ensure financial stability has made it tougher for buyers to win approvals for deals abroad.

Regulators have tightened the screws further since June, reviewing deal agreements in minute detail and ordering a group of lenders to assess their exposure to offshore acquisitions by several big companies that have been on overseas buying sprees, including HNA Group, Dalian Wanda Group and Fosun Group.

The heightened regulatory scrutiny of overseas acquisitions comes after companies spent a record US$220 billion last year on assets overseas, buying up everything from movie studios to European football clubs.

The scrutiny, however, has not had an impact on Chinese companies' pursuit of targets along the Belt and Road corridor, as those investments are considered strategic for the companies as well as the Chinese economy. "People are thinking in a long-term approach when making investments along Belt and Road countries," said Mr Hilary Lau, a corporate and commercial lawyer and partner at law firm Herbert Smith Freehills. "The acquisitions are also policy-driven. There are funds allocated by Chinese banks and state funds for Belt and Road deals."

The number of Chinese deals targeting Belt and Road countries totalled 109 this year, compared with 175 in the whole of last year and 134 in 2015, the Thomson Reuters data showed.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2017, with the headline 'Chinese firms speed up Belt and Road acquisitions despite crackdown'. Print Edition | Subscribe