China’s vast ambition for the Greater Bay Area

China aims to create an international hub for infrastructure, sustainability and financial services to the Greater Bay Area around the Pearl River Delta.

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 Several regional development schemes are underway in China, including the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area (GBA) project. Ambitious in its scope, the GBA offers a range of business opportunities for foreign firms – particularly those specialising in three areas: infrastructure; green/sustainability solutions; and investment and financial services.

As 2020 came to a close, China’s announcement for its latest plan to drive the country’s economic development in the years to come went relatively unremarked-upon. While the announcement could not compete with Covid-19 for global attention, the long-term implications of China’s development plan for the country are profound. 

A key component of this plan is the GBA project, which will physically and digitally connect Hong Kong, Macao and nine Pearl River Delta (PRD) cities in Guangdong province . [1] Covid-19 or not, China remains committed to developing the region as a long-term imperative.

The GBA is home to about 70 million people, and the project’s goal is to create a global leader in technological innovation, partly to counter the shift of labour intensive industries to lower-cost markets. In so doing, it will build an economic corridor with a GDP that’s expected to nearly triple by 2030 to $4.6 trillion – that’s almost twice the size of the entire United Kingdom economy in 2019.

Launched in early 2019, the GBA project is now taking centre stage as Beijing, seeking new drivers of growth, aims to promote regional development, prompting the country’s state-owned banks and enterprises to shift their attention to domestic projects.

“These factors, among others, underline the importance of the GBA,” says Sandra Yiu, Head of Corporate Coverage Hong Kong, BNP Paribas. “As China expends massive resources to make the GBA a success, there will be numerous opportunities for foreign firms that are ready to seize them.”

Opportunity in connectivity

The GBA offers prospects in areas as diverse as technology, real estate, infrastructure, green and sustainable solutions, logistics, trade, finance and advanced manufacturing. Three areas stand out.

1. Infrastructure

Better infrastructure will help China improve the movement of goods, capital and labour within the bloc. Indeed, that process is already underway. Two mega-projects opened in 2018: the world’s longest sea-crossing bridge connecting Hong Kong to Macao and with Zhuhai on the mainland, and the Express Rail Link, which connects Hong Kong with Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

But the GBA’s infrastructure requirements cover far more than bridges, railways and roads – though there will be more of that to come, including better connectivity by sea and air. For example, key airports are expected to expand their passenger and freight capacity, while the area’s $20 billion market for the maintenance and repair of aircraft will continue to grow.

Also of interest to foreign firms is the pursuit of a “smart” strategy. At their heart, smart cities rely on the Internet of Things, or IoT – a network of devices that talk to each other exchanging data and by doing so improve residents’ quality of life.

“Smart technology is a fast-evolving space globally, which is why foreign firms could find opportunities in a range of areas: from safety and health to convenience and air quality, for example, and for solutions covering self-driving technology, egovernment initiatives, smart buildings and smart emergency response,” says Yiu.

2. Green and sustainable solutions

Applying the principles of sustainable development to the GBA will ensure that economic growth can match the pace seen in recent decades in ways that are greener and more sustainable – even as the region becomes more urbanised and connected.

“It’s at this intersection where the demand for expertise in green and sustainable solutions arises that foreign firms with the requisite skills could benefit,” says Yiu.

One such area is energy efficiency, which offers opportunities for firms with expertise in low-carbon solutions. Examples include designing and constructing green buildings, installing solar power, and enhancing energy efficiency in existing buildings. Green transport solutions are another priority: Shenzhen, for example, has electrified its 16,000-strong public bus fleet, while Hong Kong is expanding its network of biking tracks.

Additionally, the GBA is focused on using natural resources more efficiently. This involves implementing, for example, solutions for recycling, power-generation and treatment of wastewater. Sustainability also means:

  • Incorporating solutions for climate change adaptation (which is vital for an area like the GBA that is already subject to extreme weather).
  • Using blue-green infrastructure (combining green spaces and management of water).
  • Maintaining biodiversity.

3. Investment and financial services

The GBA is at the heart of China’s efforts to internationalise the renminbi, providing opportunities for foreign firms in areas such as advisory, capital markets and cross-border financing.

Another important area is asset management. The “Wealth Management Connect“, which was launched in 2020, is designed to ensure residents can invest in relevant products offered by banks in the GBA region.

That falls within the broader goal of financial integration, which will improve access to capital and to banking products and services – and also to insurance products. The launch of the “Insurance Connect” initiative will bring further opportunities for life and non-life insurers as the cross-boundary market grows. At the same time, the GBA’s exposure to extreme weather events like typhoons and storms, coupled with the sums being poured into infrastructure projects, will be of interest to property and casualty insurers.

“To that, I’d add two further areas: fintech and green finance,” says Yiu. “Hong Kong’s regulatory regime has made the city a world leader when it comes to attracting fintech firms. That’s likely to remain the case. Meanwhile, green finance is set to play a crucial role in the GBA’s development, as the 2020 launch of the GBA’s Green Finance Alliance shows.”

Towards a high-tech, innovative future

The GBA is central to China’s efforts to encourage the growth of innovative industries that are crucial for the country’s development, and is based in arguably one of the nation’s most outward-looking areas.

“I feel the GBA offers unprecedented possibilities and the key areas highlighted here are by no means the only opportunities,” says Yiu. “Firms that believe they have something to offer would be well-advised to look closely at it.”