China's trade and infrastructure deals don't look like desperation

Think of a small European country where China currently manages a $3.5 billion portfolio of direct investment projects.

And while the hapless Europeans were stirring up more trouble for Greece, last week China completed a $368.5 million deal for a 67 percent stake in the Piraeus Port Authority, with another $350 million slated for investments to create China's largest maritime hub in the Mediterranean.

Piraeus will be the seafaring endpoint of China's 21st Century Maritime Silk Road from East Asia to Africa, Middle East and Europe.

The sea route will connect with an overland trading network called the Silk Road Economic Belt from China and Central Asia to Europe's major centers of commerce and finance.

On the North African shores of the Mediterranean, China is building infrastructure facilities in the energy-rich Algeria and a strategically positioned Egypt, which could become one of the key logistics, commercial and industrial centers on the Belt and Road project.

New sea lanes

On January 17, 2016 China and Algeria signed a $3.3 billion agreement to build and manage (by the Shanghai Port Group) Algeria's major seaport of Cherchell.

Two days later, the Chinese signed a total of 12 contracts with Egyptian companies in areas as diverse as agriculture, medical equipment, and metal, chemical and textile industries.

China is also ready to participate in the development of the Suez Canal Corridor (Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone), and in the construction of Egypt's new administrative capital.

Further down into the Red Sea, there is a $10 billion Yasref oil refinery that Sinopec built at Yanbu on Saudi Arabia's west coast. That huge facility, of which Sinopec owns 37.5 percent, was inaugurated (remotely, from Riyadh) last Wednesday by the Saudi King Salman and China's President Xi Jinping, while they upgraded their countries' ties to a "comprehensive strategic partnership."

The next gateway on the Maritime Silk Road is in the Arabian Sea.

China got 2,000 acres of land to develop Pakistani deep-sea port of Gwadar at the cost of $1.6 billion. That project is a starting point of a $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, linking Gwadar to China's Kashgar City, in the province of Xinjiang, with a network of high-speed trains, highways and oil pipelines.

India is also a big part of this maritime trading route. China-sponsored infrastructure and industrial investments in India will probably get a big boost once the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Beijing-based The New Development Bank (chaired by an Indian citizen) begin their operations in the course of this year.

Meanwhile, China's largest real estate developer decided last Saturday to invest $10 billion in a 5 square-mile industrial zone in the North Indian state of Haryana.

A resource-rich Kazakhstan, with a 1,112-mile border with China, is also vying to get a slice of a potential $800 billion market along Asia's ancient trading roads.

To begin with, Kazakhstan wants to establish itself as a major regional hub, offering faster land transportation alternatives to maritime cargo traffic from East Asia to Europe.

Rich Asian bazaars

Astana's plans are much more ambitious, though.

In December, China and Kazakhstan signed a $4 billion agreement covering business operations in energy, petrochemicals, uranium mining and telecommunications. That was a sequel to the $23.6 billion worth of deals in steel, oil refineries, hydroelectric power generation and car manufacturing signed in March.

Iran, China's third-largest oil supplier, is the latest addition to big Belt and Road projects. A total of 17 agreements, with an estimated value of $8.1 billion, were signed during President Xi Jinping's two-day visit to Tehran at the weekend, when the two countries ramped up millennia-old peaceful ties to a "comprehensive strategic partnership."

The business emphasis was apparently on civilian nuclear energy facilities, but contracts also cover oil and gas industries and infrastructure investments in sea ports, roads and railways.

The Export-Import Bank of China has been another active participant in reviving old trade routes. Some estimates have it that the bank financed more than 1,000 infrastructure and industrial park projects in 49 countries along the Belt and Road destinations in 2015, for a total amount of about $80 billion.

These are some of China's major and most recent projects along the Belt and Road ancient trails. It seems that they are only the beginning of infrastructure and production initiatives foreshadowed by China's direct investment outflows currently running at an estimated annual rate of more than $120 billion.

Last year also saw a record amount – apparently exceeding $100 billion – of Chinese companies' foreign acquisitions.

This year, too, is off to a good start: In the past few weeks, the Chinese have spent more than $9 billion acquiring foreign firms in entertainment, home appliances and chemical industries.

All this fits into China's short- and medium-term development plans. Indeed, one of the immediate objectives of China's Belt and Road construction projects is to use excess production capacities left by slowing manufacturing industries at home.

The steelmakers are a good example of that strategy: They exported a record 112 million tons last year, marking a 20 percent increase from 2014. A reduction of idle production outlets is also part of China's medium-term market reforms. Large-scale industry consolidations (already under way in the shipbuilding sector) and outbound foreign direct investments are expected to soften the blow of inevitable job losses.

Investment thoughts

China naysayers are legion. There is nothing new about that; they have been around for a long, long time.

But, as always, markets will continue to respond to China's monetary and fiscal policies and to evidence on economic growth, structural reforms and the country's rising share of global demand and output.

China's economic track record and its unique method of economic management show that the Zhongnanhai officials have known how to navigate in what they call "deep waters" of economic reforms ever since they initiated that process in late 1970s.

Still, watching what they are doing now, I have the impression that they are underestimating the serious challenge posed by the opening up of China's financial system and capital account transactions.

As a former international civil servant with long experience in working with industrialized countries on their financial sector reforms, I have witnessed, up-close, how sophisticated European governments struggled – all the way to the creation of the common currency – with free capital flows and large exchange rate swings.

Investors can safely ignore the views about China's hard landing economic scenarios, but they have to expect unsettling volatility of their yuan-denominated assets.

Those who wish to avoid that can place their bets on dollar- or euro-based companies deriving large incomes from their Chinese operations.

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