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Belt and Road

Belt and Road propels Chinese contractors to top of global ranks

China grabs quarter of cross-border construction revenue last year

A tunnel is under construction as part of a Malaysian railway project being built with China, which revived the initiative by agreeing to reduce costs.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Chinese contractors took in nearly a quarter of international construction revenue last year, a rise directly linked to Beijing's Belt and Road infrastructure projects in the developing world.

Top Chinese contractors pulled in $118.9 billion in cross-border sales, U.S. industry publication Engineering News-Record reports, a sum about triple the amount a decade ago.

ENR found that Chinese contractors took in 60% of all cross-border construction revenue in Africa, as well as 40% in Asia outside of China. Chinese players held the top spots in contracts for transport infrastructure, power generation facilities and factories.

Out the top 250 international contractors named by ENR, 76 hail from China. The Chinese contingent accounted for 24.4% of the $486.9 billion in revenue made by these businesses outside their home countries. This is a step up from a decade earlier when 50 Chinese contractors made the list, occupying an 11% share of revenue.

Aided by Beijing's Belt and Road initiative that aims to develop global transportation infrastructure, Chinese enterprises have been especially successful in landing rail projects in Asia.

China and Malaysia, for example, agreed in April to resume work on an east coast rail link once Beijing agreed to reduce costs by more than $5 billion. Spearheading the project is the state-owned contractor China Communications Construction Co.

The company, known as CCCC, collected $22.7 billion in cross-border revenue in 2018, placing it third in ENR's rankings. Power Construction Corp. of China and China State Construction Engineering Corp. also made the top 10.

In contrast, Japanese counterparts are struggling. Only general contractors Obayashi and Kajima ranked in the top 50, as did plant constructors JGC and Chiyoda. None are higher than 30th place.

The 11 Japanese companies that made the top 250 contractors generated $19.6 billion in revenue overseas, down 20% from a decade earlier. Japan's take in 2018 accounted for 4% of the overall total, a retreat from 6.3% from 2008.

On the other hand, the Europeans have maintained their presence. London-based TechnipFMC sits at 11th place, slipping two spots from a decade earlier. Liquefied natural gas projects, like Shell's floating megafacility off the coast of Australia, has kept TechnipFMC in the upper slots.

Spain's ACS, the top cross-border contractor, kept the crown by bulking up and honing its cost competitiveness. In 2011, ACS bought a stake of over 50% in German construction heavyweight Hochtief, ranked second on ENR's list.

The rise of Chinese contractors can be seen the energy sector, a field where once they had little presence.

Building petroleum, petrochemical and LNG facilities has been a strength for Japanese contractors -- with Chiyoda and JGC hovering at or near the top 10 in that category during the past decade. 

Last year, an engineer for a Japanese plant contractor visited a Chinese-built petrochemical complex, which combines an oil refinery with petrochemical production equipment. Such a project usually takes four years to complete, but this compound was constructed in just two years.

"Technological prowess is no longer a differentiating factor," the engineer said.

Only about four to five contractors in the world are thought to be capable of constructing LNG facilities, but it may be only a matter of time before a Chinese competitor joins that class.

Because Chinese contractors enjoy massive demand domestically, they are well-positioned to build up know-how on construction and cost cutting. They are also known to extend generous financing to client nations as a way to land more orders. For example, Kenya's railway project that was financed by Chinese loans, although it has come under fire for being a debt trap.

"With its vast financial muscle, China has submitted bids without regard to profitability," said an industry insider.

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