Import extravaganza highlights China’s promise and challenges

Visitors crowd into the China International Import Expo. (Getty Images)
Updated 08 November 2018
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Import extravaganza highlights China’s promise and challenges

  • Beijing plans China-centered world trading networks
  • Critics say foreign firms squeezed out of technology

SHANGHAI: Visitors to a vast trade fair meant to rebrand China as a welcoming import market could sip Moroccan wine, ogle Italian yachts and watch a Japanese industrial robot play ping-pong.
The communist government’s marketing extravaganza involving 3,600 companies from 152 countries showcases the promise and challenges of China’s growing, state-dominated and intensely competitive markets.
At a stand for German robot maker Jungheinrich, spectators watched a bright yellow automated forklift shift bulky cartons. A manager, Christian Wurzinger, said China accounts for one-third of its global sales but the Hamburg company wants to expand beyond factories and logistics into health and other industries.
The expo gives “very good access to Chinese companies, especially outside big cities,” said Wurzinger. “We are lucky to be here.”
Still, he said Jungheinrich already faces Chinese competition: “There are plenty of local Chinese manufacturers with pretty good technology, to be honest.”
The China International Import Expo is part of efforts to develop China-centered world trading networks while resisting pressure to roll back industry plans that Washington, Europe, Japan and other governments say violate its market-opening obligations.
China already is the No. 1 market for most of its Asian neighbors. But a big share of those imports is iron ore, computer chips and other materials that are turned into smartphones, toys and other goods for export.
That is changing as communist leaders promote consumer spending as part of efforts to develop self-sustaining economic growth and reduce reliance on trade and investment. That holds out the promise of a market of 1.4 billion consumers, even if incomes are a fraction of those in developed countries.
On the expo’s opening day, President Xi Jinping promised Monday to boost imports, cut costs for importers, protect patents and improve consumer spending power. But he did not address US and European complaints about technology policy that prompted President Donald Trump to impose penalty tariffs of up to 25 percent on $250 billion of Chinese goods.
Importers into China must contend with a thicket of restrictions and, in autos and other industries, pressure to help develop potential Chinese competitors as the price of market access.
Tarvand Saffron, an Iranian exporter of saffron, was invited to the expo by a Chinese state-owned company. But export manager Amir Reza Jalalian said food regulations bar sales of its product in China.
“Maybe in the future we can import saffron,” Jalalian said, as visitors crowded around the company’s stand to smell the crimson spice.
Business groups complain that while Beijing increases imports to serve its factories and consumers, foreign companies are being squeezed out of technology and other promising industries.
Exhibitors at the expo ranged from General Motors and Lego toys to Brazilian shoemakers, a Korean dumpling brand and Uganda’s National Enterprise Corp., an exporter of coffee and honey.
Visitors crowded around a stand for Japan’s Omron Corp. to watch an industrial robot hit a ping-pong ball back and forth with a human opponent.
Global auto, aerospace and technology brands already are well known in China, suggesting many were at the expo not to sell but to nurture relations with the Communist Party by showing support for Xi’s trade initiative.
“For the bulk of China’s imports, these expos don’t make much difference,” said Gareth Leather of Capital Economics. “For companies from smaller, developing countries, probably at the margins they do make a bit of a difference.”
At a stand promoting Polish poultry, visitors lined up for bowls of chicken in cream sauce made by cooks led by celebrity chef Artur Moroz.
Nearby, visitors sipped red and white wines from La Ferme Rouge, a winery in Morocco in North Africa. It produces exclusive batches under the labels of luxury hotels in Morocco and wants to market that service to high-end Chinese hotels and restaurants.
“It’s a big opportunity for us to enter this part of the market,” said Rita Sourelah, a manager.
The expo also highlighted the blurring of lines as Chinese companies acquire US and European brands and technology to sell at home.
Weichai Group, a Chinese shipbuilder, displayed a luxury cabin cruiser made by Italy’s Ferretti, in which Weichai bought a 75 percent stake in 2012.
Other hybrid importers included Sweden’s Volvo Cars, a unit of Chinese automaker Geely Holding; General Electric Appliances, acquired by China’s Haier Group in 2016, and California-based solar supplier MiaSole, part of Beijing-based Hanergy Group.


‘Substantial progress’ made on major China trade deal that excludes US

Updated 14 November 2018
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‘Substantial progress’ made on major China trade deal that excludes US

SINGAPORE: Substantial progress has been made on hammering out a China-backed trade deal, Singapore’s leader said Wednesday, driving ahead the world’s largest commercial pact which the United States is excluded from.
World leaders gathered in the tropical city state this week for a summit where a massive Beijing-backed agreement covering half the world’s population has dominated discussions.
Diplomats have been trying to nail down details as Beijing entices its neighbors to join a commercial alliance seen as an antidote to President Donald Trump’s “America First” protectionist trade policy.
The US has imposed tariffs on roughly half of what it imports from China, prompting Beijing to retaliate with its own levies.
Beijing’s leaders have recast themselves as the defenders of global commerce — with the United States under Trump relegated to the sidelines.
China, Japan and India are among 16 Asia-Pacific countries negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
“Substantial progress has been made this year to advance the RCEP negotiations,” Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Wednesday evening, adding talks were now “at the final stage.”
“With the strong momentum generated this year, I am pleased to note that the RCEP negotiations are poised for conclusion in 2019,” he added.
But he cautioned any further delays could risk “losing credibility” for a deal — which has already taken six years to negotiate.
This week’s meetings are the biggest in a series of annual gatherings organized by regional bloc the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN), and are attended by 20 leaders.
RCEP was given extra impetus after US President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the rival Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in early 2017.
That deal was spearheaded by his predecessor Barack Obama and aimed to bind fast-growing Asian powers into an American-backed order to counter China.
The TPP is still alive even without Washington — and will come into effect in December — but RCEP, if realized, will be the world’s biggest trade deal.
However, the Beijing-backed pact is much less ambitious than the TPP in areas such as employment and environmental protection.
Beijing had hoped to have the meat of the deal done by the end of this year, but the timetable has now slipped to 2019.
However, this has not stopped Chinese leaders from basking in the progress already made.
During a meeting with Southeast Asia leaders, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said he was hopeful talks would “break through the ceiling” and take regional trade “to new heights.”
Trump is not at the Singapore summit, nor will he attend a subsequent gathering of world leaders in Papua New Guinea at the end of the week, having sent Vice President Mike Pence instead.
National Security Adviser John Bolton, however, told reporters in Singapore that the president’s no-show should not be seen as a lack of commitment toward the region.
He blamed a “schedule crunch” after a particularly frenetic few weeks that included the midterm elections, attending the World War I armistice commemorations in France and preparing for the G20 in Argentina later this month.
There are still major sticking points in RCEP talks — with regional rival India particularly nervous about giving Chinese companies greater access to its markets, and wealthier nations wanting to see more progress on labor reforms.
Disagreements on intellectual property rights, goods tariffs and financial services are also on a long list of issues that still need to be concluded.
Also, the spectre of possible leadership changes with several general elections scheduled early next year — India, Thailand and Indonesia — have also complicated the timeline for a deal.
Aaron Connelly, an expert on Southeast Asian politics at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the fact that RCEP negotiations were not concluded at this year’s ASEAN could indicate China has some way to go to convince neighbors to sign up.
“It’s interesting that when Beijing is at its most vulnerable on trade, with US tariffs biting, they weren’t willing to concede enough to their neighbors in terms of market access to get a deal done,” he told AFP.
At the same time, trade ministers across Asia Pacific have sounded a largely positive tone this week, saying they expect the pact to be agreed sooner rather than later.
“The future lies in RCEP,” Indian trade minister Suresh Prabhu told reporters earlier in the week.