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The Marco Polo Effect: How China invests in Italy

13 July 2015
Giada Vercelli

As well as being a big buyer of Italian government bonds, China has made a series of significant investments in blue- chip Italian companies over the past two years. Antonino Laspina is the Italian Trade Commissioner (ICE) in Beijing, China. He is responsible for all ICE offices in Asia where he has been living and working for over two decades. With the past 12 years spent in China, Sicilian-born Laspina is also a member of the advisory board of ASIAINVEST, a European Union programme of cooperation with Asian countries. He has discussed China’s overseas expansion and the opportunities created by President Xi Jinping’s One Belt/One Road with Euromoney Conferences’ Giada Vercelli, in his office on the 38th floor of a skyscraper in the ultramodern Chaoyang district.


EC: It’s a beautiful view over Beijing you have, and we can see far in the distance today. Is today a good day or is your 38th floor office just above the pollution cap? Is pollution an overrated issue in Beijing?


AL: Environmental issues are becoming increasingly more important in China. There is a growing awareness among different levels of government of the importance of tackling the problems arising from a development model that is the main cause of air pollution in Beijing and many other important cities. Sometimes we experience a couple of days with wonderful weather in Beijing like in old times, but very often we have to limit our activity due to high pollution levels.


EC: We cannot see many cranes either, so much for the real estate bubble...


AL: Indeed, we don't see the number of cranes we would expect. In order to control the risk of a bubble, Chinese authorities have limited construction permits in many cities of the Eastern provinces. But they have been very generous in giving permits for construction work in many cities of the Western regions and provinces.


EC: The Marco Polo Effect, as the motivation driving Chinese investment in Italy, is deeply-rooted. What is the source of China’s fascination with Italy?


AL: There is a peculiar fascination that plays a favourable role for Italy among Chinese people. Marco Polo, Matteo Ricci and all the iconic monuments and natural beauties that we have in Italy are certainly playing a positive role. The new consumers and new decision makers generated by three decades of uninterrupted economic growth, have a positive consideration for the Italian economic and social model in common. They are in love with the so-called Italian lifestyle and therefore are interested in developing links, contacts, and business with Italian entities.

 EC: Are these expectations always met?

 AL: If we consider the constant growth of the volume of trade between the two countries, you could say that our expectations are indeed met. If we look at the volume of Italian investment in China and the number of Italian companies operating in China, we have much to be positive about. Nevertheless, it is clear that China was very late to understand the importance of Italy as an ideal place for Chinese capital. We have registered a very strong acceleration in the last three years and we expect more investment in the years to come.

 EC: What would Chinese investors expect or like to see that they cannot find in Italy at the moment?

 AL: Among the financial and industrial sectors in China, the economic crisis created an image of Italy that was mostly unrealistic. Negative situations were overrated and Chinese companies were waiting for a change for several years. Today, Chinese investors are more aware of Italy’s peculiarities and characteristics. They are more aware of the opportunities offered by an extremely diversified manufacturing system and within Europe, second in size only to Germany. Today, they are more aware of the technological wealth they can find in small and medium size companies with experience in research and development, and in management. The Chinese are also more aware of the investment opportunities in many high tech sectors where Italian companies have been working successfully for many decades. They are keen on the leadership developed by Italian companies in many fashion and design related sectors.

 EC: Can you mention some recent examples?

 AL : The flow of investment in recent years from China to Italy has been growing. Important investments, under the aegis of Chinese financial institutions, have been channelled into Italian companies. We have also seen a growing number of Chinese companies succeeding in M&A. These will be strategic for the internationalization of China’s economic system. Chinese companies have injected capital into very active, and in some cases famous, Italian companies in order to gain control of technology in process and product, or in a distribution channel.

 EC: What motivates Chinese companies to invest in Italy?

 AL: Chinese companies are not interested in Greenfield investment. They are aware of the strategic position of Italy at the centre of the Mediterranean Sea. They try to complement their manufacturing skills and competitiveness with Italian skills in design and marketing or brand building ability. By investing and operating in Italy, Chinese companies are confident that some pluses of the Italian economic systems can be used in their Chinese factories and companies.

 EC: Chinese firms entered the European economy by firstly buying small operations in trade activities and then moved towards acquiring resources to increase Chinese presence in international markets and to upgrade its technological capacities. Is this the same pattern the Chinese have adopted in Italy?

 AL: The entry pattern or model adopted by Chinese companies when dealing with Europe has been more or less the same for every country: full control of the company at once or increasing control of the companies in order to keep or save the spirit and strength of the existing company.

 EC: So far we have seen the Chinese targeting ‘Made In Italy’ by buying up luxury brands in fashion and design. More recently, their interest has been focused on Italian technological capabilities. What is the strategy behind this and where is the next wave of attention going to come from?

 AL: Chinese investment in Italy is still well below its potential. Opportunities are in those sectors were Chinese companies can count on the huge size of the domestic Chinese market. Opportunities are in those high and medium tech sectors where Chinese companies can source goods and services for aerospace, aeronautics, energy, mechatronics, design and architecture, life sciences and social services.

 EC: Despite the presence of Chinese companies in the developed world being small, with Europe and North America receiving less than 3% of total Chinese FDI, the financial press seems to focus their interest on China’s overseas expansion. How is Chinese firms’ increasing presence perceived in Italy, both by the boards and by public opinion?

 AL: The persistent economic crisis has influenced the perception of China among Italians. Today, Chinese companies are not seen exclusively as unfair competitors but in many cases they are considered the only solution to some problematic situations...

EC: Looking at the major infrastructure network between Europe and Asia, Italy should represent a natural outlet. China is in advanced talks with Cosco to boost cooperation for the Piraeus port. Northern Europe seems to be covered by the development of a rail route linking the South-Western Chinese city of Chongqing with Duisburg, Germany. Where does that leave Italy on the Silk Road?

 AL: Things are changing, and very fast.  Big groups from China are evaluating opportunities in high tech, tourism, logistics and in infrastructure. Today's Silk Road is based on connectivity. It's not the Silk Road of camels, carpets and spices. Italy can play an important role because IT has accumulated knowledge and skills, experience and the resources necessary for the implementation of the Silk Road, launched by Chinese President Xi. Italy is an important partner and investor in most countries of the Silk Road and the Maritime Belt. Putting together Italian companies and Chinese vision and capital could be an effective way of speeding up economic growth, not only in China and Italy, but also in many other countries. 

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