China’s investment in Australia is collapsing
Matthew Cranston

Chinese commercial investment in Australia fell more than 47 per cent to just $2.5 billion in 2019, and is expected to fall further amid tensions between the two countries, according to the Australian National University’s latest Chinese Investment in Australia database.

The database is arguably the most accurate source of Chinese investment in Australia because it records actual transactions, as opposed to approved or contracted deals, as is the case with other databases such as that of the Foreign Investment Review Board.

The federal government’s approval of the $1.5 billion sale of Bellamy’s was the largest Chinese investment deal to proceed in 2019, and was largely seen as a positive for Beijing’s frosty relationship with Canberra.

However, overall the level of Chinese investment in Australia has now fallen for three consecutive years since it peaked at $15.8 billion in 2016, according to the CHIIA.

ANU’s lead analyst for the CHIIA database, Mary Ming Sheng, said Chinese investment would decline further.

“Judging from the information so far this year, we’d expect Chinese investment to be lower in 2020,” Ms Ming Sheng said.

“That’s partly because of COVID-19 but also because the Australian investment environment has tightened.”

One of China’s most voracious property developers, Poly Global, suddenly abandoned a late-stage deal worth up to $300 million with Lendlease this month in what sources said was a last-minute “directive from Beijing”.

However Ms Ming Sheng said it was hard to put a price tag on the drop in investment activity resulting from ongoing trade and diplomatic tensions between the two countries.

“It would be speculating to say exactly how the politics has affected these investment flows,” she said.

In 2019, Chinese investment almost halved across all sectors, with major falls in mining, real estate and commercial property, manufacturing and a collapse of investment in agriculture. There were some modest gains in construction, education and finance.

The real estate sector received the biggest proportion, with 24 per cent of Chinese investment, followed by the mining sector that made up 21 per cent of the total value.

Over the six years from 2014 to 2019, 361 Chinese investments have been made in Australia worth $49.3 billion.

The data does not include personal investments such as residential property transactions.

Project leader Peter Drysdale said: “An important characteristic of the CHIIA database is its public nature and its verifiability.

“The transparency of the database makes it useful for detailed inquiries and the tracking of particular investments in Australia. This kind of data is not available from other foreign investment databases in Australia.”

Before the CHIIA database was constructed, there were two main official sources that measured Chinese investment in Australia. The first was the FIRB’s Australian Government Foreign Investment Approvals data set.

This data is based on approvals for proposed, rather than actual, investments above certain thresholds. Approved investment is larger than realised investment, which is what CHIIA measures.

The second data set is the Australian Bureau of Statistics series, which measures Chinese investment that comes directly from the Chinese mainland. However, much Chinese investment comes through Hong Kong and other global financial centres or may be funded from local sources.

“This results in an underestimation of Chinese investors’ presence in the Australian economy,” Professor Drysdale said.

Other measures such as the China Global Investment Tracker and the University of Sydney-KPMG record investments by date of contracting.

“These three technical distinctions, and the choice to publish CHIIA data at the transaction level, mean that CHIIA data fill an important gap in the existing information about Chinese investment in Australia,” he said.

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