Wen Visit Won't Provide Greek Solution: Analysts
Staff Writer, CNBC.com
China's premier Wen Jiabao arrived in Hungary on Friday as part of a five-day tour of Europe that analysts expect will see the Chinese government attempt to reassure markets over its economic management and lend rhetorical support to Europe's economies.
Wen moves on to London on Saturday, and then Berlin, where he will launch a new bilateral consultative mechanism with the German government.
Ahead of the visit, observers had been hyping the role that China could play in any eventual resolution of the euro zone's sovereign debt crisis. The country has previously offered to support Greece by buying debt, and much of the hyperbole in advance of Wen's arrival was around the potential for Chinese capital to provide at least some temporary underpinning for the European periphery.
Greece's parliament votes on Wednesday over an austerity package that is designed to bring the country's runaway debt under control. Passing the austerity bill will unlock a 12 billion euro ($17 billion) tranche of European Union and International Monetary Fund aid, which could stave off default.
Against this backdrop, some observers in Europe have been looking to China's $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves as a source of finance, and hoping for some indication from Wen that Beijing is ready to pitch in, either through direct participation in the bond markets, or through the privatization of Greek assets.
China analysts, however, are more muted in their assessments.
"I don't think we should expect to see huge overtures, like buying up debt," Damien Ma, an analyst at Eurasia Group told CNBC.com. "They will talk a lot, but what they probably will do is less than meets the eye."
Ma believes that Chinese investments in, for example, the auto industry, will have a higher place on any agenda than bond purchases.
China's sovereign wealth funds have been acquisitive throughout the financial crisis, buying assets across emerging and developed markets. African and Latin American infrastructure and resources have attracted a lot of attention from those looking to divine a strategic goal to Beijing's growing portfolio. While control of commodities is clearly on the Chinese agenda, however, it would be a mistake to assume that investments in Europe would be similarly strategic.
"There's a lot of opportunity the Chinese would want to advance. And to some extent there's hedging between the US and EU markets, because there's this uncertainty from Beijing's perspective about how strong the US recovery will be," Ma said.
"They've just got so much money that they've got to pump out of the system that OECD markets like Europe are very attractive to them," he added. "I think it's a lot less strategic than one might think."
Heather Conley, the Europe program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CNBC.com that the timing of the visit naturally increased the speculation around Beijing's potential contribution to resolving Europe's crisis.
However, she said, "Chinese leaders have been frequent visitors to Europe…and quite frankly it's completely understandable. The EU is China's largest trading partner, China is the EU's second largest trading partner, and China wants to ensure a strong and stable European market."
Wen's visit will lend rhetorical support, but may not result in much direct investment, Conley explained.
"I tend to think that China's purchase of European debt will continue to be fairly modest. Certainly Asian capital is part of the solution, but I would argue that it's not going to be a decisive part of the solution," she said. "I think the European leaders see this as a third way. I'm not entirely sure that it's going to be the panacea that they seek."
The independence of Southern Sudan on July 9 is likely to be on the agenda in London, analysts noted, with China, as a major investor in the north of the country, able to act as a potential interlocutor between the two sides. Libya, too, could be up for discussion, but any decisions are unlikely to make it into the public statements.
Human rights is typically a feature of such dialogues, but as Alice Richard, a China expert at the European Council of Foreign Relations, told CNBC.com, "They've sort of dodged the human rights issue by freeing [artist and activist] Ai Weiwei. It's difficult not to see that as not being connected. There was a lot of press coverage in the UK and Germany, particularly Germany."
Ai, an outspoken critic of the Chinese government, was arrested in April for "economic crimes." He was released on bail on June 22.
The bilateral relationship between China and Germany is an interesting sideshow to a visit that is likely to be dominated by speculation around potential deals over Greece. The basis of Sino-German interaction has been relatively straightforward: "China needs the high tech manufacturing from Germany, and Germany needs the strong Chinese export market," Conley said.
However, the deepening of their relationship is worth watching, she added.
"I would liken it to the US-China Strategic Economic Dialogue. We saw on the margins of the G20 summit in Seoul that Germany and China have some areas of agreement, and that's certainly not wanting anything to influence an export-driven economy. I think we want to watch that relationship grow," Conley said.