China is known for its patience. A century is but a page in the book of its history. We Europeans are much more edgy. First we lamented that our manufacturing jobs were stolen by China. Then we worried about the Chinese shopping spree for raw materials in Africa. And now we are trying to come to terms with the fact that China is buying European businesses in all shapes and forms.
Europe should not complain. This is all part of globalisation and capitalism, the two pillars of our economic success in the past 100 years. Nevertheless, now that China might be seen as the champion of free trade and state-driven capitalism, we should pay close attention to what happens next, or what is already happening. And react accordingly.
For decades, China has been folding Africa into its supply chain for raw materials – mainly oil and minerals. But it is currently mining Europe for its precious metals and gems: talent, intellectual property, market shares, technology, brands, established businesses and value chains.
The gear shift is palpable. China is no longer just the world’s low-cost sweatshop. The shopping list in Europe includes high-tech, higher value added industries and services. A great number of investment bankers, lawyers, and due diligence professionals in London, Frankfurt and Paris are suddenly involved in projects with Chinese principals.
China is focused on Europe because the essentially protectionist Committee on Foreign Investment of the United States puts all Sino-US transactions under scrutiny and in effect places a “wall” in the path of Chinese investment. The change of control in the White House will not make investment in the US any easier.
This makes our continent lucrative for acquisitive Chinese funds. This week we can see it at Slush in Helsinki, one of the biggest start-up events in Europe, which has drawn many Chinese investors over the years. Two years ago I spent a day there with China’s vice-premier. Yet Europe appears to be taken by surprise by all this interest. It lacks US-style controls and tools for deliberation.
Europe is waking up to the new reality and its implications, as demonstrated by high-profile cases such as the attempted Chinese takeover of German chipmaker Aixtron. The economy ministry withdrew support after alleged reports that the US intelligence service had warned the government that the technology could be used for military purposes.
Other takeovers pose fewer problems. For instance, Tencent, the Chinese investment holding company, this year bought a majority stake in Supercell. While the Finnish group’s flagship game, Clash of Clans, is a multiplayer test of strategic skill, the acquisition has little strategic importance in the real world.
The big question is how Europe should react.
The first thing to do is to be aware that the aqcuisitions are taking place and that they are systematic. This is not necessarily a bad thing; Europe needs an injection of foreign capital. At the same time it is important to understand that many, but by no means all, of the transactions are state led and targeted at intellectual property and IT. These could have a strategic impact and should thus be dealt with carefully.
Second, Europe should not burn bridges by taking knee-jerk protectionist measures. Few predicted that the Chinese would emerge as advocates of free trade while the US turned inward. The best option would be a new deal between Europe and the US based on security, foreign policy and trade – but if the administration of Donald Trump decides to scrap the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with Europe, we will have to look elsewhere. In terms of size and scale, China is the obvious direction in which to look.
Third, Europe should seek common solutions. The natural reaction is to go native, to come up with national as opposed to common rules. This would be the wrong approach. Europe would become a patchwork flea market instead of a co-ordinated internal market. The left hand would not know what the right hand was doing. And in any case history has shown that protectionism leads nowhere.
Perhaps it is finally time for Europeans to be patient; to understand that the balance of economic power is shifting. It is not about blue-collar work moving continents. It is about white-collar companies changing owners. That is imbedded in the basic nature of global capitalism.
The best way to react is to remain cool, calm and collected – to assess the situation, understand what is going on and try to come up with a joint approach. My hope is that this happens sooner rather than later. My fear is that we are already too late. This is yet further proof that markets are often a step ahead of the regulators.