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Forget the tough trade talk: Some US leaders are courting Chinese investment

  • "There's a tremendous amount of capital in China that's looking for a place to be deployed, in a safe, reliable environment. The United States affords that opportunity," Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin says.
  • Chinese companies tripled their investment in the U.S. last year to $46 billion, according to consulting firm the Rhodium Group.
  • "In the end, it doesn't matter who opens a new factory in Kentucky, South Carolina, Idaho or wherever. Someone is investing in their community," said Adams Lee, an international trade lawyer at Harris Bricken.
Chinese 100 yuan notes in Beijing.
Fred Dufour | AFP | Getty Images
Chinese 100 yuan notes in Beijing.

Political relations between the United States and China may be rocky these days, but some U.S. political leaders are actively courting investment from the world's No. 2 economy.

And on the Chinese side, many companies would like a piece of President Donald Trump's $1 trillion infrastructure proposal.

"There's a tremendous amount of capital in China that's looking for a place to be deployed, in a safe, reliable environment. The United States affords that opportunity," Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin said during an international finance and infrastructure cooperation forum in New York last week. "There is tremendous infrastructure need in this country."

"The two largest economies in the world and the most powerful are that of the United States and China," Bevin said. "The idea that we would not work together seems inconceivable."

Like Trump, Bevin comes from a business background. He spoke to reporters on the sidelines of the event, co-hosted by Bloomberg and the China General Chamber of Commerce - U.S.A. The National Governors Association helped organize the event.

While U.S. news media have recently focused on Trump's health care and tax policies, Chinese think tanks and business leaders are concerned with potential investment opportunities the administration may create.

Trump "wants to have good relations with China. And so I would think that would certainly have something to do with how China can participate," real estate mogul Richard LeFrak said in response to a CNBC question.

He wouldn't put a specific number on how much China might contribute to infrastructure projects.

Chinese companies tripled their investment in the U.S. last year to $46 billion, according to consulting firm the Rhodium Group.

So far this year, investment from China has slowed due to Beijing's efforts to limit capital outflows. Some in the U.S. federal government have also discussed increasing scrutiny on Chinese deals for security reasons, and the idea of cooperation with China may not fly in some voting districts.

But many analysts expect Chinese authorities to loosen capital controls and remain confident that Chinese money will continue to flow into the United States.

"In the end, it doesn't matter who opens a new factory in Kentucky, South Carolina, Idaho or wherever. Someone is investing in their community," said Adams Lee, an international trade lawyer at Harris Bricken. Despite a recent lull, "I think there's going to be more Chinese investment in the U.S. across all sectors," he said.

The congressional district that includes Louisville, Kentucky, was among the top 5 recipients of Chinese foreign direct investment from 2000 to 2016, according to an April report from Rhodium and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. One of New York City's districts heads the list, followed by one in Chicago.

Chinese jobs, American workers

Chinese-owned companies added about 50,000 U.S. employees last year, for a total of more than 140,000 American workers, the study found. By metropolitan area, Louisville topped the list with 6,020 jobs at Chinese companies, followed by Charlotte, North Carolina, with 5,680 jobs.

Bevin said Kentucky's next big project is in cooperation with Ohio to rebuild the Brent Spence Bridge, a major trucking route crossing the Ohio River. The project will reportedly cost $2.5 billion and directly create 2,200 jobs, according to a document from the Trump administration obtained by The Kansas City Star.

"At the end of the day what really matters is whether it's a good opportunity," Bevin said. "And so, for me, I don't worry about the resistance — that some, of course, would be happy saying that's not creating enough jobs. But the funny thing is, most of the people who will say that have probably not created any jobs in their entire life. So I don't listen to the noisy people who don't know what they're talking about."

"A strong America makes a better trading partner, a better economic partner," he added.

The speakers at the Bloomberg-hosted event ranged from Gang Yi, deputy governor of the People's Bank of China, to National Governors Association CEO and Executive Director Scott Pattison.

Two men Trump picked for his national infrastructure council were present: the developer LeFrak and Steven Roth of Vornado Realty Trust.