South Korea, Japan, Canada and China have paid extraordinary mind this year to a sleepy Ottoman fortress town on the Black Sea. Sinop, some 450 kilometers east of Istanbul, will most likely host Turkey’s second nuclear reactor, and the four countries are in heated competition for the up-to-US$20 billion contract.
That South Korea, Japan and Canada chose to participate in the international bid for the nuclear contract is typical in the global atomic industry. The countries have built reactors abroad for decades. Chinese activity in the international market for nuclear power, however, has come as a surprise during the past two years. Though the developments in Sinop represent but a fraction of the infrastructure work China bids on overseas, they hint at the future ambitions of China’s state-dominated engineering giants.
As the economic slowdown tightened the reins on capital for infrastructure around the world, Chinese construction firms with the backing of state banks have become increasingly competitive. Chinese firms are still playing a technological game of catch-up with more experienced exporters of nuclear power. Even so, the country is on its way to establishing its own brand of atomic expertise that could transform the market in the not-so-distant future.
No strings attached
Red safety helmets with Sinohydro or China Road and Bridge logos have become an inextricable part of the developing world’s landscape during the past 30 years. Whether on national highways in Benin or at hydro-powered dams in Cambodia, Chinese workers are piecing together low-income nations one mega-project at a time.
China’s state construction firms were created in the 1980s after reform took a hammer to the government monolith that had once helmed all building projects. Companies such as China Civil Engineering Construction and China International Water and Electric gained newfound autonomy to bid on overseas projects.
Their names were quickly draped across building sites the world over. Between 1976 and 1979, Chinese workers laid their hands on just 43 projects in 11 countries, according to a report released last year by Li Yan at the University of Kansas. Twenty years later, armies of Chinese builders had worked on 39,000 sites in 188 countries.
But the social benefit of these projects is sometimes debatable. Asian Development Bank and the IMF have warned that certain Chinese-built projects in Cambodia, if not up to standard, would leave the country’s government with useless infrastructure alongside heaps of debt. Environmentalists have also decried the willingness of Chinese companies to maim the natural environment at a nod from local officials.
Leaders in developing nations recognize that China’s government-to-government construction works are a one-off boon to development they often can’t get from anywhere else. China extends concessional loans to some of the world’s poorest countries “without strings attached” – in other words, without regard for human rights abuses and other violations that curb the flow of funding from elsewhere.
The bank behind the curtain
The speed and efficiency with which China dams rivers and grates the earth has been a major factor in winning bids in Turkey this year, said Deniz Eke, Turkey’s consul general in Shanghai. The country, which straddles the traditional gateway between East and West, issued more than US$2.5 billion in non-nuclear energy project contracts to Chinese companies in the first half of 2012. It has also hired Chinese firms to build more than US$1 billion in railway and solar energy equipment. The figures are large given the amount of bilateral trade the two countries did in 2011, about US$24 billion (see box on page 44).
Behind each mammoth project is a state bank to match it in size. China’s willingness and wherewithal to bankroll these works has been vital – especially during a time when developed countries have pulled forcefully on the purse-strings of public finance.
Turkey experienced an abrupt slowdown in growth this year, in what Eke said was a result of global financial woes finally catching up with its economy. The stall has widened Turkey’s need for financing of public works. For Chinese companies, “this is really the opportunity,” Eddie Chen, executive director at Invest Sweden said.
Chen has kept tabs on Chinese construction projects abroad and said a push into bigger economies was both a novel and a natural progression. “For Chinese companies doing infrastructure work in the developed world, this is very new, particularly after the financial crisis in 2009.”
And it’s not just Turkey and similar economies that find themselves in need of a financial boost. In San Francisco, sections of the recently rebuilt Bay Bridge arrived on cargo ships from Shanghai last year. The extreme example of outsourcing met with protest from steel workers unions, but city leaders said China’s involvement would save the US$7.2 billion project more than US$400 million.
In the decade ending in 2008, China doubled the value of its infrastructure projects in the US to about US$645 million, according to Li’s report. During the same time period, China expanded its hold on the world’s construction market by 490%, ending 2008 with US$65 billion in projects.
The ability to provide financial backing will play a major role in who wins the bidding process for the Sinop reactor, one of three proposed plants in Turkey that together will produce 4,000 megawatts of electricity. The contract, should China win it, would be one of only a handful of similar projects abroad in which the country has shown interest. However, Chinese firms are set to heavily influence the future of international nuclear contracting, according to one of China’s top energy experts.
“Very few countries are building nuclear reactors at this point. There’s really a lot of opportunity for us to go out and compete,” said Lin Boqiang, an energy advisor to China’s National Development and Reform Commission and director of the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University. “China is going to be very competitive in the nuclear power market internationally.”
Last year marked a dramatic rise in China’s activity on the international atomic market. In the past two years, China has either signed or bid on nuclear contracts in Romania, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Argentina, noted Antony Froggatt, a senior research fellow at international think tank Chatham House. China has cooperated with Pakistan on nuclear power since the 1980s, and in 2000 the country opened a plant in the city of Chasma with the help of Chinese technicians.
China’s ambitions to market atomic energy abroad became apparent in 2006 when the country began negotiations for technology transfers with US nuclear power company Westinghouse, said Mark Hibbs, senior associate at the Nuclear Policy Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “At the time, foreign industry officials considered the Chinese plans to be highly ambitious, to say the least,” he said of China’s aims to acquire the intellectual property rights that would move it to the top tier of the industry.
Chinese state-owned firms such as China Nuclear Energy Industry are overseeing about 40% of global nuclear construction, or 26 plants – all on their home turf. The experience China is amassing at home will translate to lower prices and quicker building timelines for countries looking to upgrade their power supplies. The hands-on experience gave China a “very good chance” of leaving Turkey with the Sinop contract, Lin said.
Technology is still the biggest snag in China’s atomic energy exports, Lin said. Third-generation technology – a reference to the current highest level of international safety standards – is being employed at a plant in Zhejiang province set to go online in about a year. Exporting the technology will take muc
h longer, “but the domestic technology is developing quickly. I think, eventually, China will look to establish its own brand,” Lin said. Until then, China will either contract projects with other exporters or provide less sophisticated domestic technology to those willing to take it, he said.
China’s nuclear technology could very well become the world’s budget brand, recalling the country’s reputation for undercutting the world market for manufactured goods during the past 20 years. If the market differentiates between China and better-established exporters, it would avert downward price pressure on companies such as Areva and Candu, currently some of the biggest exporters, Hibbs said.
A force for good?
Those who haven’t witnessed the voracity with which Chinese companies execute massive projects may need to brace themselves. Given the rate of industry development since the late 1970s, Li at the University of Kansas predicted that turnover from projects abroad will more than triple by 2018 to about US$200 billion annually.
“China’s global construction industry will become a force. How strong and how big this force will be has yet to be seen,” Chen at Invest Sweden said.
But the record forged in some of the world’s poorest countries, where safety and management standards are traditionally low, will not translate into confidence in the West. Securing not only the contracts, but the trust of developed nations is highly dependent on modernizing its management expertise for a Western setting, Chen said.
Low wages coupled with foreign capital and technology brought China success as the world’s factory, said Andrew Szamosszegi, principal at US consulting firm Capital Trade. “The same level of success may be elusive in international markets [for construction] for a number of reasons,” he said. For one, China is losing its wage advantage as income levels rise and the renminbi appreciates.
China is also bound to face staunch global competition. Many of China’s competitors in the nuclear arena, such as Westinghouse and Areva, are heavily invested in projects in the mainland and have therefore been quiet about China’s recent moves outward, Hibbs said. But international companies will eventually come head to head with those firms under the Chinese government, should more contracts such as the one in Sinop be granted to China.
“Most reaction has been muted in public. Foreign companies will become more reactive the more China’s ambitions cross the line from being intention to being deals,” Hibbs said.