Chinese lenders chart plans to expand European footprint

Updated: 2011-01-26 11:29

By Fu Jing (China Daily European Weekly)

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ICBC opens new branches in Brussels, Paris, Amsterdam, Milan and Madrid

Chinese lenders are gearing up to cash in on the immense opportunities appearing in Europe as more domestic companies spread their wings on the continent.

The ongoing debt crisis and China's assurance that it will purchase treasury bonds of some countries like Spain, Portugal and Greece are also opening up new opportunities for lenders.

Chinese lenders are already present in Europe with two of the big four banks on the continent, but there is still enough room for further expansion, analysts say.

Belgium was one of the first countries in Europe that attracted the Chinese lenders. Bank of China opened a branch in Brussels in December 2010, while the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), the world's biggest bank by market capitalization, followed suit with its branches this week.

ICBC had earlier said it will expand its presence in Europe significantly by setting up five new branches this year. The bank opened a branch in Paris on Jan 18 and said it will also have a presence in Amsterdam, Milan and Madrid in the following week.

The Brussels branch of ICBC will provide comprehensive financial services including deposits, loans, settlements and other investment banking services for Chinese and European customers, ICBC President Jiang Jianqing says.

"The decision of ICBC to open five European branches almost at the same time fully reflects the firm confidence in the future of Europe," Jiang says.

Analysts and experts have stressed the vital role that China can play in an European recovery. At the ICBC branch opening ceremony in Paris, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said: "France is very glad to welcome the biggest bank of the world, ICBC."

According to Lagarde, the new investment from ICBC will extend the existing financial cooperation between China and France.

Jiang says there is immense potential to boost commercial ties between China and France. Trade volumes exceeded $40 billion (29.76 billion euros) in 2010 and there are opportunities for enterprises from both countries.

"Internationalization is a basic strategy for ICBC, and it is unshakable even during the economic crisis," Jiang says.

ICBC's global footprint is spread over 203 branches in 28 countries. It employs nearly 4,700 personnel at its overseas branches.

Jiang's ambitions find an echo in the shifting stances of the policymakers. Exports and investment were the mainstay of the economy until now. But with equal importance being accorded to imports and outbound investment, enterprises have started to "look outside" for growth.

Earlier this month, Vice-Premier Li Keqiang wrapped up a tour of Spain, Germany and the United Kingdom, while his business delegation inked deals worth $20 billion.

His visit came close on the heels of Premier Wen Jiabao's visit in October and President Hu Jintao's European tour in November 2010, both of which saw multi-billion-dollar contracts and agreements being inked with European countries.

Song Zhe, Chinese ambassador to the European Union, says bilateral relations between China and Europe has gradually shaken off the adverse influence of the international financial crisis and exceeded the pre-crisis level.

As more and more European companies start shifting their investment from manufacturing to service sectors, opportunities for lenders will also increase. "There are more mergers, acquisitions and risk investments," Song says.

China's soaring demand for mechanical equipment and luxury goods has also been an important driving force for economic recovery in many European countries, he says.

"All of these are opening up new opportunities for Chinese lenders."


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