Wary of China, Europe and Others Push Back on Foreign Takeovers

The committee, which can essentially block foreign acquisitions of American firms on national security grounds, has already quashed a number of deals by Chinese-linked buyers. Lawmakers are now calling to broaden the types of transactions the panel can vet.

Europe got off to a later start. A protectionist debate ramped up last year when Germany, France and Italy called for a Europe-wide mechanism for more rigorous vetting of foreign takeovers. The move came amid rising worries about the loss of the region’s edge in technology, and the transfer of so-called dual-use technologies to China.

Concerns mounted after the 2016 purchase of Kuka, Germany’s biggest and most advanced maker of robotics, by a Chinese company. And they have intensified as China has invested in railways, ports and other strategic infrastructure across southern and Central Europe.

Some of the reaction reflects domestic political concerns. Bruno Le Maire, France’s finance minister, said on a visit to Beijing in January, for example, that Paris would welcome investment from China, but only after screening deals to ensure French assets are not “looted.”

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Robotic arms made by Kuka welding together parts of a Volkswagen Passat in Emden, Germany, last week. Kuka, Germany’s biggest and most advanced maker of robotics, was purchased by a Chinese company in 2016. Credit Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Still, numerous governments are pressing to harden reviews of foreign investment as China embarks on a major push to transform its economy to a cutting-edge superpower, an ambitious policy known as Made in China 2025.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker proposed in September creating a Europe-wide framework to screen investment deals by foreign companies. And last year, the German Parliament passed a law allowing deals to be scrutinized on national security grounds if an investor’s stake reaches 25 percent.

But the political push to tighten up on Beijing faces considerable hurdles.

For one thing, the risks of angering China are real. Despite the optics, European companies remain eager for Chinese investments. And European governments are also wary of offending Beijing at a time when they are pressing to get better access to Chinese customers.

Even within Germany there is no unity among political leaders. Angela Merkel, recently sworn in for a fourth term as chancellor, has actively cultivated ties with Beijing, and China has become a crucial market for companies like Volkswagen, a German behemoth and Europe’s biggest automaker.

Europe is also divided over how to cope with China’s rise. Greece, Hungary and other poorer southern and central European countries that benefited from China’s largess during the financial crisis have generally opposed tightening scrutiny for fear of discouraging further Chinese investment.

As a result, Mr. Juncker has sought to walk a fine line in his proposal to screen investment deals, which is seen as the first step toward an E.U.-wide mechanism similar to Cfius.

It’s a reason critics say the plan lacks real teeth. It would mainly require European Union member states to inform Brussels of foreign investment deals, especially ones that might affect the security of another country. Currently, only 12 of the E.U.’s 28 member states have any screening mechanism in place.

“It will be difficult for the E.U. to have a strong institutionalized mechanism for foreign direct investment any time soon,” said Jue Wang, an associate fellow in the Asia Pacific Program at Chatham House, a research organization in London. “European companies will still want to welcome Chinese money.”

The proposal also appears to be weaker than what other major economic powers have in place. Japan recently strengthened restrictions on foreign investments related to security. And Britain this week strengthened government powers to scrutinize foreign investment in specific areas of the economy through the lens of national security, with China in mind.

Nor would the European Union’s plan necessarily catch innovative new strategies by Chinese investors to take stakes in strategic assets.

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The Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, meets with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang late last year. While Mr. Trudeau has courted Chinese investors, public sentiment in Canada has not always aligned with that effort. Credit Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

Germany was caught off guard after one of China’s wealthiest men last month amassed a $9 billion stake in Daimler, a crown jewel of Germany’s auto industry. Li Shufu, the chairman of the Chinese car giant Geely, made the grab through a financial maneuver before anyone even realized what was happening. Last year, the German company rejected a proposal by the Chinese businessman to take stakes in the company.

The stealth purchase over months made Mr. Li the largest shareholder in Daimler. German authorities are examining whether the purchase adhered to German investment laws. But it is unlikely that either Daimler or the German government can do anything about the acquisition.

The experience of other countries shows the complexity of the situation.

In Australia, where Chinese foreign investment reached more than $30 billion in 2014 alone, the government has sought to toughen screening.

Wariness of Beijing’s growing economic influence has increased as Chinese investors buy up vast swaths of the Australian economy and over concerns about Chinese businessmen giving millions of dollars to Australian politicians. Chinese takeovers of Australian businesses have jumped in recent years, along with an acceleration in purchases of agricultural land.

In 2015, the government strengthened foreign acquisitions and takeover rules to require the approval of a national oversight board if, for instance, a foreign purchaser’s portfolio of farmland was worth $15 million or more. It has also blocked bids by a Chinese firms for Australian electricity companies, citing such deals as contrary to the national interest.

More changes could be afoot. The government recently said it would consider updating its foreign investment guidelines so Australians could be sure that proposed investments were “good for the country.”

Elsewhere, while the government of Prime Minster Justin Trudeau has been actively courting Chinese investors, public sentiment in Canada has not always aligned with that effort. Some attempted takeovers of Canadian companies by Chinese investors were abandoned because of concerns over national security and Chinese business practices. Lenovo, the Chinese computer maker, dropped ambitions to acquire BlackBerry, a smartphone used widely in government agencies, after Ottawa signaled a deal could compromise national security.

Those concerns prompted Canada’s previous Conservative government to strengthen foreign investment laws to require stakes taken by non-Canadian entities to pass a national security test.

The government is now reviewing a proposed takeover of Aecon, a major Canadian contractor, by Chinese state-backed CCCC International Holding. Officials are assessing whether national security would be undermined by the takeover of Aecon, which handles major infrastructure projects and has also done work for Canada’s military and nuclear industry.

“We welcome international investments that will benefit the Canadian economy,” said Karl W. Sasseville, a spokesman for Navdeep Bains, the minister for economic development whose department handles investment reviews “but not at the expense of national security.”

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