On January 26, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China opened its 19th office in Europe in the heart of Antwerp at the Frankrijklei. Five years ago, ICBC set foot in Brussels and now in Antwerp as well. The Chinese bank is one of the largest in the world and wants to strengthen its ties with the Antwerp port and industry.
Strong ties with the Port of Antwerp
They say that the office in Antwerp is purely symbolic to propitiate Flemish potential customers, but bank workers claim otherwise. According to them, the close relationships between the Port of Antwerp and its main Chinese counterparts have a major influence. Moreover, there still is a different business culture in Antwerp than in Brussels. The bank will initially focus on the Antwerp port companies, where they see potential in shipping finance or invest in the Chinese currency, the yuan.
After this, the Antwerp Port Authority signed an agreement with ICBC as part of a strategic fifty-year plan, which the Chinese president Xi Jinping already announced in 2013. This plan – named the “new Silk Road” – will connect the main Chinese industrial cities with the major trading centers in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Luc Arnouts, commercial director of the Port Authority: “The many overseas connections make Antwerp an amazing port at the western end of the Silk Road.”
ICBC, a giant bank
The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, founded in 1984, is one of the four state-controlled giant banks in China and is listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange. With a market capitalization of around 200 billion euros, 240 million retail customers and 5.4 million business customers, it is, according to some rankings, the largest bank in the world. Both Belgian sites are part of the Luxembourg branch of the bank. The office in Brussels has doubled its total assets the last five years to 1.1 billion euros, based on 1,500 customers, including European and Chinese companies. Liu Xun Zhang, the deputy manager of the Brussels office, now takes charge of the Antwerp office.
ICBC aims to approach four kinds of customers in Belgium: retail customers with especially Chinese individuals, companies doing business in China, Belgian banks who are seeking Chinese investment and Belgian wealthy who want to invest directly in China and therefore can’t rely on their own bank.
No focus on the Antwerp diamond trade
It is still not entirely clear what they will accomplish with the new branch in Antwerp. Cathy Berx, Antwerp governor, wants the Chinese bank to give new prospects to 1700 diamond dealers. They did lost their own bank since the stop of the Antwerp Diamond Bank at the end of 2014. ICBC is familiar with the sector. In 2011, the Chinese bank signed a cooperation agreement with the Antwerp diamond sector. Liu Xun Zhang, office manager of the Antwerp office: “Diamond dealers are welcome, but we aren’t able to offer them specific services. The requirements, which the National Bank as regulator imposes, are strict.”
A remarkable observation with new offices is that the Chinese themselves are more interested in investing in diamonds. Recently, there has been an exploding demand for investments in diamond engagement rings. Until a few years, “an engagement ring” was a strange concept in the Chinese culture. The increase in prosperity in China and the – recently again abolished – one-child policy has the country saddled with a smaller ratio of women vs. men. These women have discovered a new weapon in the quest to find the perfect groom. If a woman in China is aspired to a diamond ring, she will definitely find some men who are willing to invest in it. Also with BAUNAT DIAMONDS, this form of investment is clearly observed.