Chinese expansion with a Portuguese face

CCCC’s acquisition of a 30% stake in Portugal’s top construction firm increases access to Latin America and challenges US sanctions
<p>CCCC and Mota Engil already partner on Mexico&#8217;s Mayan Train, set to be Latin America&#8217;s biggest rail project (image: Alamy)</p>

CCCC and Mota Engil already partner on Mexico’s Mayan Train, set to be Latin America’s biggest rail project (image: Alamy)

China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) has been one of the star corporate players of China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). It has been involved in dozens of large infrastructure projects in Latin America, including airport expansions in Guyana and Ecuador, port projects in Cuba and Brazil and, most recently, won the contract to build Bogotá’s metro.

As such, the firm became an obvious target for US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his seemingly endless campaign to hamstring investment from Chinese state-owned companies in the Americas. On August 26, he accused CCCC of being “engaged in corruption, predatory financing, environmental destruction, and other abuses across the world”. He placed the company and its subsidiaries on the Department of Commerce’s Entity List, meaning they will require specific licenses to import or transfer goods.


Mota Engil's market valuation after CCCC's acquisition of shares

CCCC’s response, which came the very next day, was to announce they were in the final stages of purchasing a 30% stake in Mota Engil, Portugal’s flagship construction company with a footprint that spans Latin America and Africa. The deal, which included the inscription of 100 million new shares, effectively valued the Portuguese company at €750m, more than double its pre-existing market capitalisation of €344 million. The Chinese firm was apparently prepared to pay a hefty premium for entry.

Mota Engil, which began operations in 1946 with offices in Portugal and Angola, is a flagship company with a long history of working in Africa. More recently it has expanded in Latin America where it is currently maintaining offshore oil rigs in Brazil, building schools in Colombia and constructing a hydroelectric dam in Honduras. In Mexico, it works alongside CCCC on the Mayan Train, the largest rail project in Latin America in recent history.

But the pandemic has hit Mota Engil’s business hard. The firm lost €5m in the first half of this year.

According to Artur Amaro, an analyst at CaixaBI, a Portuguese investment bank, the deal with CCCC makes strategic sense for both parties. “Mota Engil receives a vital capital injection at a difficult time but it also has the opportunity to gain experience and know-how from one of the world’s largest, most advanced construction companies,” he told Dialogo Chino.

“For CCCC, the Portuguese market is tiny, the rationale has to be the access to new markets, the experience Mota Engil has acquired in Africa and Latin America and the relationships it has cultivated with governments there.”

The deal would leave the Mota family with 40% of shares. However, CCCC’s financial muscle mean it would likely make the key decisions of where and how to invest. The company has significant political heft in Portugal, counting among its employees and advisors former ministers from the centre-right and socialist parties.

Similar well-paid jobs have been offered to influential politicians following Chinese acquisitions in the Portuguese utilities and energy sectors, leading to claims Portugal is China’s “special friend” in Europe.

“The Chinese companies have been very skilful in attracting and co-opting the Portuguese elite from across the political spectrum,” Miguel Monjardino, professor of geopolitics at the Portuguese Catholic University told Dialogo Chino. “This gives them access to the political decision-making process in Portugal but they also have influence overseas, where Chinese firms want to expand. This is part of the ‘strategic partnership’ the two countries are trying to develop and it’s the reason Portugal is so useful to China.”

Chinese companies are adept at winning tenders and have been using mergers and acquisitions as a way to gain access to assets in the region since the early 2000s

Faced with sovereign debt and resistance from local labour and industry associations, Latin American countries mode of borrowing from China through its policy banks, with funds tied to the contracting of Chinese companies to engineer, procure and execute infrastructure projects, appears on the wane.

CCCC acknowledges the changing landscape. Writing last year in International Engineering and Labour Service, a journal pertaining to the China International Contractors Association (CHINCA), two CCCC staff, including Chang Yunbo, president of CCCC Southern America Regional Company (as the subsidiary is referred to in an English translation from the Chinese), note:

“In recent years, South American countries have vigorously promoted PPP [public-private partnerships] projects and investment and financing projects in order to ease government financial pressures…The advantages of equipment, experience, and management efficiency that Chinese engineering contracting companies have in the traditional market have turned into disadvantages in South America.”

Perhaps foretelling the interest in acquiring a stake in Mota Engil, the CCCC executives note that “European companies have relied on their rich experience in the PPP model to have a bigger share in the market, to seek greater profit margins and more cooperation opportunities”.

The transaction prompted pushback from the US. In an interview with local media in September, US ambassador to Portugal, George Glass, accused Mota-Engil of selling their stake for “30 pieces of silver”. He warned the governments of Mozambique, Angola and Mexico that they should be “conscious that there is a malign influence [behind Mota Engil] that could have different intentions regarding their business.”

Glass said that Portugal, which has seen strategic Chinese investments in utilities, 5G and port projects, “needs to choose now” between the US and China.

One outcome local analysts deem possible is that Mota Engil eventually joins CCCC on the Entity List. The inclusion of a major Western European firm would be a blow for diplomatic relations, however, and highlight the limitations of using sanctions to try to constrain China’s international investments.

According to Margaret Myers, director of the Asia and Latin America program at the Inter-American Dialogue, CCCC’s acquisition of shares in Mota Engil is part of a broader pattern of Chinese investment in Latin America, to which the US response has been “very reactive”.

“As well as working directly with heads of state, they [Chinese companies] are adept at winning tenders and have been using mergers and acquisitions as a way to gain access to assets in the region since the early 2000s. They often retain the management teams and don’t make drastic changes to how the businesses are run.”