Keeping the doors open
Favorable policies have helped unlock the huge investment potential in the UK, says trade official, Cecily Liu reports
Transparency and a favorable environment for foreign investors have helped the United Kingdom attract more investment from China, says the top official of the British government responsible for inward investment.
“I think it’s highly unlikely that any other developed country would be as open to investment, not just from China, but more generally, as we are,” says Nick Baird, CEO of UK Trade & Investment.
Baird says that the current level of Chinese investment in the UK infrastructure sector is a good gauge of the transparency and openness in the country.
Cheung Kong Infrastructure Holdings, an investment vehicle controlled by Chinese billionaire Li Ka-shing, owns British water utility Northumbrian Water Group Plc. Last year, China Investment Corp, the nation’s sovereign wealth fund, bought a 10 percent stake in Heathrow Airport Holdings and an 8.68 percent stake in Thames Water Utilities Ltd.
More recently, British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced that the UK would allow Chinese companies to take majority stakes in British nuclear power plants.
Osborne’s comments came after speculation that the British government would not allow Chinese companies to hold majority stakes in the French utility major EDF’s planned power station at Hinkley Point, in Southwest England, for national security reasons.
“We are happy to involve Chinese companies in all aspects of our economy. So investing in Britain’s nuclear industry is a good example, because you can’t get any more sensitive than that,” Baird says.
He says another example is the Chinese telecommunication giant Huawei Technologies Co Ltd’ investments in the UK, which have not been shackled in any manner.
In September 2012, Huawei announced an additional investment of 1.3 billion pounds ($2.13 billion) in its UK operations over a five-year period to 2017. This will create 700 new jobs.
“Huawei is a very welcome investor in the UK. We are confident about the investments we have with Huawei. We are looking forward to them growing their investments even further,” Baird says.
In comparison, Huawei has been barred from conducting any mergers and acquisitions in the United States after a House Intelligence Committee report warned last year that the company was a security threat.
Baird says he is glad to have witnessed many first-of-its-kind Chinese investments in the UK.
Citing examples, he says that Chinese fashion retailer Bosideng International Holdings Ltd has become the first Chinese fashion brand to open a flagship store in London, while Dalian Wanda Group became the first Chinese company to operate in the luxury sector after acquiring British yacht maker Sunseeker.
He says Chinese investment has helped the British economy, as it brings much-needed capital for ailing companies.
He says nuclear power is a good example, because the British government had in the past failed to attract investment for the Hinkley Point project. The potential Chinese investment will certainly create many local jobs, he says.
Baird says the British government is keen on more Chinese companies making acquisitions in the UK, because such deals help local firms to expand through investment in research and development.
“The (British) companies are quite successful, but can’t get investment to grow faster, because R&D involves huge upfront costs, something that is tough for smaller companies,” he says.
Baird says that foreign investors control 40 percent of the UK infrastructure sector, and a majority of its automotive industry. “We are not unduly worried about this and welcome all types of investment because it helps grow the local economy.”
Baird says he sees enormous potential for Chinese investment in pharmaceuticals, life sciences, films, media and fashion. He says these are all sectors the UK has expertise in, while China is experiencing growing domestic demand.
Baird says the UK has excellent R&D skills and a number of science parks with tax incentives for foreign investment, such as the science parks affiliated with the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge.
He says there is great potential for Chinese pharmaceutical and life science companies to develop new products in the UK for the Chinese domestic market as well as export them to Europe.
He says the UK’s film production expertise should prove attractive for potential Chinese investment, for the same reason that many US films are produced in the UK, including the Game of Thrones TV series and the latest Star Wars film.
Baird says financial services is another area that has great potential, because the UK is a global financial center and China is in the process of internationalizing its financial sector. He says potential for cooperation is particularly strong in London’s development as an offshore renminbi hub.
Baird says other areas suitable for cooperation include renewable energy, advanced manufacturing, infrastructure, aerospace, telecommunication and automobiles.
At the same time, Baird also acknowledges obstacles to Sino-UK cooperation, including visa processing complications, transport connectivity and lack of knowledge about opportunities.
In recent years business groups have lobbied the UK government to simplify its visa process for Chinese visitors, who need to make a separate application for the UK in addition to their Schengen visa to EU countries. Britain’s limited airport connectivity with China also attracted criticism, in that it is falling behind European hubs such as Amsterdam.
But Baird says the visa issue is “more perception than reality”, and the UK government is working hard to encourage more Chinese visitors to the UK. He also says that the country’s connectivity with China is improving, as demonstrated by British Airways’ new direct flight to Chengdu.
He says the lack of knowledge about investment opportunities is a crucial reason why many potential opportunities are still not realized.
“For certain sectors in China, Britain is well known as an investment destination. In others, there is little Chinese presence, and people are waiting for the first movers. So when there are successful Chinese companies, the others will follow,” he says.
Nick Baird, CEO of UK Trade & Investment, says Chinese investment in the UK helps bring capital and job opportunities for the local economy.