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Germany is trying to stop China from gobbling up its companies — but there may be a downside

A worker rotates a gas turbine during assembly at the Siemens gas turbine factory on January 8, 2010 in Berlin, Germany.
Sean Gallup | Getty Images

Think of Germany and it isn't long before visions of bustling business districts and thriving manufacturing plants spring to mind.

It isn't surprising: it's these industries that have elevated the country to rank among the world's leading economies. But increasingly they have also become the subject of political power play with one of Germany's biggest competitors – China.

A bonanza year of Chinese takeover bids in 2016, of which Germany was the primary target, brought China's seemingly insatiable appetite for foreign firms starkly into focus, and prompted regulators to take note. New restrictions were rolled out in Germany in the interests of "national security", allowing ministers further scope to investigate buyouts deemed endangering to critical industries, such as technology and infrastructure. Meanwhile China, in a bid to keep its devaluing renminbi afloat, introduced controls to limit capital outflows.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to workers and KUKA CEO Till Reuter (L) while visiting the KUKA industrial robotics factory on March 13, 2015 in Augsburg, Germany.
Joerg Koch | Getty Images

The measures so far seem to have had the desired effect. Though tabled by the German government as targeting all non-EU investors "regardless of origin", China, the largest international investor into Germany – and indeed most countries – felt the burn. Chinese foreign direct investment volumes into Germany more than halved in the six months to June compared with the record highs seen in the first half of last year, according to Reuters.

Yet, the rules have also been met with accusations of hypocrisy. Germany's economy minister called on China last year to "level the playing field" and ease inward investment into China. But Germany's new swathe of restrictions appears to have upped the ante, posing new questions about just who stands to gain from the country's increasingly protectionist stance.

How are German businesses responding?

"This is where opinions diverge," Michael Wiehl, partner and head of M&A at Rodl & Partner, a consultancy firm for the German Mittelstand, told CNBC via email. The Mittelstand refers to Germany's more than 3.3 million small- and medium-sized companies which underpin up the country's economy.

"On the one hand the know-how and sensitive data of key German industrial companies can be protected by such restrictions," he said. "However, this is primarily a fear of politicians and not the industry itself."

I'm wondering how many companies need protection.
Kim Schindelhauer
CEO, Aixtron
The headquarters of chip equipment maker Aixtron is pictured in Herzogenrath, western Germany on October 25, 2016.
Oliver Berg | AFP | Getty Images

For many firms, tighter regulations are an infringement by the state on the free market and simply block much-needed investment.

"I'm wondering how many companies need protection," Kim Schindelhauer, chief executive of Aixtron, told CNBC. "We are talking here about global companies who do huge amounts of business overseas."

Aixtron was the subject of a high profile $728 million Chinese takeover bid in 2016. The purchase of the semiconductor manufacturer by Fujian Grand Chip Investment Fund fell through, however, after the sale of its U.S. arm was blocked on security grounds similar to those later brought in in Germany.

"We, Aixtron, do not need protection: we wanted the deal," he said, noting half of Aixtron's revenues are generated in China. "We need the funding for research and development. Technology companies need that and European bodies certainly aren't going to provide it."

Experts are also concerned that Germany's hardened stance could result in efforts by Chinese investors to circumvent the rules and access core intellectual property via partner firms outside of Germany.

"The implementation of tighter restrictions on foreign takeovers ... may lead to a higher Chinese interest in buying companies from Central Europe operating as sub-vendors to German companies," Rodl & Partners's Wiehl said.

"This would be another possibility at gaining access to German know-how."

Tougher EU regulations on the cards

Already, the leading forces within the EU have become wise to this prospect. Germany, France and Italy have been lobbying the European Parliament to make EU-wide rules, and it appears to be working.

In September, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, the institution responsible for proposing EU legislation, is to use a keynote speech to announce new measures to tackle perceived gaps in the vetting of foreign takeovers across all 28 member states.

Currently, less than half of EU nations have formal systems in place for screening foreign investments and the risks they may pose to national security.

There is a need for an overall European strategy.
Jost Wuebbeke
Head of Program Economy & Technology, Merics
The European Commission in Brussels, Belgium
77studio | Getty Images

"There is a need for an overall European strategy," Jost Wuebbeke, head of Program Economy & Technology at Merics, a German think tank exclusively focused on China, told CNBC over the phone.

"All European countries are feeling an increased level of Chinese investment and there is likely to be a push for change from policymakers," he said.

What might these new restrictions look like?

The U.S. ruling over Aixtron and the subsequent loss of the deal sparked suggestions that the EU could move to replicate the U.S. Treasury's regulatory stance.

However, the German government has insisted that its guidelines will be tailored to the specific demands and interests of member states.

We are convinced that the member states should be in charge for the execution of the screening process.
Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy

"From our point of view, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) would not be an adequate blueprint for European regulation," a spokesperson for the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, told CNBC via email. "We are convinced that the member states should be in charge for the execution of the screening process."

A system engineer supervises the production line for 300mm wafers in a clean room at the GlobalFoundries semiconductor manufacturing plant on July 14, 2015 in Dresden, Germany.
Matthias Rietschel | Getty Images

Such demands could range from extending the frameworks of more stringent member states, for instance Germany, to all EU countries, or reciprocating the most restrictive guidelines of non-EU countries, such as China.

Aixtron's Schindelhauer has insisted that the rules must involve early conversations between businesses and the government, and clearer timeframes for approval.

Could this lead to a more open China?

German ministers may hope that new restrictions will prompt China to lower its barriers to entry and afford EU businesses the same buying opportunities in China that Chinese companies have enjoyed in Europe. Germany has spent the last months and years trying to convince China of this.

There is no reason for China to level the playing field because it does not need the capital.
Patrick Yip
National M&A leader, Deloitte China

But analysts are skeptical. For Wiehl, such goals are only likely to play out over the medium term, while Patrick Yip, national M&A leader at Deloitte in China, argues such moves will do little to help Germany's agenda.

The view from the top of Shanghai's skyscraper shows Jin Mao Tower (left) and Shanghai World Financial Centre (right) on November 11, 2015 in Shanghai, China.
Alexander Kaunas | Kommersant | Getty Images

"There is no reason for China to level the playing field because it does not need the capital," Yip said over the phone.

"I think it's going to be counterproductive to Europe because with fewer prospective buyers the prices of these companies will drop and it will become harder to secure a deal," noted Yip.

The EU's loss could be other countries' gain

Yip insists, however, that despite the lower deal volumes seen so far this year, "Chinese appetite is still there."

This can be seen in Chinese President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road initiative, a development strategy aimed at boosting China's global presence by investing in pan-Eurasian infrastructure projects.

The U.K. is also going to stand to gain if Europe tightens restrictions...
Patrick Yip
National M&A leader, Deloitte China
A view over the financial district and St Paul's Cathedral towards the west of the city at sunrise in London.
Getty Images

"The Belt and Road, which targets historically less popular countries and typically involves smaller, cheaper transactions, may actually see some growth, encouraged by government policy and financing."

He also suggested that there could be one specific and notable beneficiary from a European crackdown: the U.K. Once Britain leave the EU in March 2019, it will be able to veto any EU M&A regulations.

"The U.K. is also going to stand to gain if Europe tightens restrictions because it will soon be leaving the EU and will no longer be subject to the same EU regulations," opines Yip.

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