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Tencent fights to make its presence felt beyond China

Tencent Holdings promotes its WeChat Pay service in overseas stores popular with Chinese tourists, such as the Daimaru department store in central Tokyo.

TOKYO Shoppers at the Daimaru department store in the Japanese capital see plenty of advertisements for standard payment methods such as Visa and UnionPay. Occasionally, there is one in Chinese that reads weixin zhifu, meaning WeChat Pay.

The ads are small reminders that the Chinese messaging app, and its parent Tencent Holdings, have extended their reach beyond China. Indeed, the company plans to roll out WeChat Pay to 10,000 Japanese stores this year. But despite Tencent's involvement in myriad high-value investments in Asia, its presence on the ground is relatively limited.

"Many [Chinese] tourists use it," a Daimaru cosmetics representative said of WeChat Pay. The department store hopes to maximize profits from the recent influx of such visitors to Japan. Yet for almost all non-Chinese consumers, WeChat Pay remains unavailable. In many ways, that sums up Tencent's presence in East and Southeast Asia.

The Hong Kong-listed company became China's largest corporation by market value on Sept. 5, edging out state-controlled China Mobile. Despite being one of the world's most valuable companies, however, Tencent has struggled to achieve sustainable growth in its non-China investments. In 2015, revenue from mainland China rose by a third to 96 billion yuan ($14.3 billion), while in other markets it grew by just 2% to 6.6 billion yuan.

A report in July from GlobalWebIndex, which researches digital consumer markets, did show that WeChat's monthly usage rate in the Asia-Pacific region -- excluding China -- almost doubled between the first half of 2015 and the first half of 2016. In South Korea and the Philippines, it increased by as much as 300% and 150%, respectively.

Focusing on its core strengths, Tencent is trying to improve WeChat's functionality for Chinese users abroad. Since 2015, WeChat Pay users have been able to make purchases in nine foreign currencies, including the yen, the Hong Kong dollar and the South Korean won.

GAME THEORY Nevertheless, Tencent finds itself at a crossroads, caught between short-to-medium-term growth opportunities at home and its long-term strategic need to establish a bigger footprint elsewhere in Asia.

Games are a key part of Tencent's global expansion strategy. According to the gaming data compiler Newzoo, Tencent is the world's largest gaming company and China is the largest games market. Online games contributed nearly half of Tencent's revenue in the second quarter of 2016.

In this segment, South Korea has been a focal point. Tencent's history of investments in the country stretches back over a decade. Recently, it has invested in games companies such as CJ Games, 4:33 Creative Lab, Pati Games and Flint.

As a result, it has become what Hsin-Chih Pu, a China research analyst at the Market Intelligence & Consulting Institute in Taiwan, described as "the dominant publisher of Korean games in China." In 2012, Tencent also acquired a 13.8% stake in Kakao, the developer of the country's dominant messaging app.

Japan is another hub of activity. In 2014, Tencent invested in Aiming, and it has partnered with Konami Digital Entertainment and GungHo Online Entertainment to bring games to mainland China. The acquisition of a majority stake in Finland's Supercell from Japan's SoftBank for $8.6 billion in June has given Tencent a foothold in several Asian markets, thanks to popular titles such as "Clash of Clans." In Southeast Asia, Tencent has bought stakes in Vietnam's VinaGame and Singapore's Level Up.

"Tencent's expansion of [its] gaming business in the Southeast Asia region relies heavily on investment in local companies," said Chenyu Cui, a games analyst at media researcher IHS, based in Shanghai. "[Such investment] helps Tencent to explore the local market easily."

In general, however, such investments are primarily about sourcing titles and intellectual property that can then be brought to mainland China.

Meanwhile, Tencent has also tried to penetrate overseas markets in other sectors. In May, it launched a children's smartwatch, the QQ Watch, in Malaysia. It now offers its Joox music streaming service there, as it does in Hong Kong.

That music service is tied in with WeChat, and it has chiefly been through that app that Tencent has tried to tap Asian markets. This year, it launched its WeChat Out feature for domestic and international telephone calls in Hong Kong, Macau, Laos, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia.

Yet Tencent is facing stiff competition from international peers, as well as local rivals. Facebook and Japan's Line are expanding in Southeast Asia, with the U.S. company opening offices in Malaysia and the Philippines earlier this year. Bolstered by its recent listing in New York, Line has been localizing and adapting its app for Southeast Asian markets, for example with a food delivery service in Bangkok.

"The challenges are greater because there are other competing apps that are similarly robust," said Mark Natkin, founder and managing director of market researcher Marbridge Consulting.

BEAT THEM OR BUY THEM One way Tencent is fighting its competitors is by investing in them. Tencent is a strategic investor in Singapore's Garena, which has built an ecosystem around gaming, e-commerce and payments in Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Often described as the Tencent of its region, Garena has raised over $500 million since its inception in 2009. Its president, Nick Nash, has described Tencent as the company's "elder brother."

Such moves allow Tencent to reap rewards from Asian markets outside China indirectly and over a much shorter time frame than the alternative route of foreign direct investment.

Tencent has taken a similar approach in India, where it participated in messaging app Hike's recent $175 million funding round. "With our investment, Hike will be able to leverage our deep domain expertise in the messaging platform space to provide more value to its users in India," Tencent President Martin Lau said at the time. The company did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

For now, China's growth pattern suggests the home market will remain Tencent's focus. The country's relatively low internet penetration rate of 50.3% at the end of 2015 -- 90.1% of whom were mobile internet users -- suggests that huge numbers of fresh online consumers are likely to emerge as economic expansion continues.

Outside China, investment is likely to be aimed at the U.S., where there is a richer mix of opportunities in both content and technology. In 2015, Tencent's total investment in the U.S. almost doubled to 14.4 billion yuan from a year earlier. Its commitments in Asia, excluding China and Hong Kong, rose to 9 billion yuan, from 7.2 billion yuan.

Even so, Tencent is aware that it must keep a toehold in the Asia-Pacific region. A May report by Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings and Google estimated that Southeast Asia's internet economy could be worth $200 billion by 2025. Within that, the e-commerce market could reach $88 billion, and the online media market is expected to hit $20 billion.

"The long-term goal for all of China's internet companies is to grow beyond China and to become global players who can compete effectively outside of China with companies like Facebook," Natkin said. "Right now is really the time when a lot of that territory is going to be hammered out. I think each of the major internet companies [in China] realize that if they don't make good inroads in overseas markets now, then that territory will get staked out."

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