Back to work: the Colombo Port City Project was temporarily suspended in 2015 © Getty

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Over the past two decades, China’s construction companies have built more infrastructure more quickly than ever before. Now, spurred by the world’s most powerful development finance institutions, they are looking overseas to stage their second act.

The China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), which ranked 151st in the 2016 Fortune Global 2000 of leading companies, typifies the global ambitions that are animating the big Chinese builders.

“Our ultimate goal is to have 50 per cent of our revenue from overseas,” Fu Junyuan, CCCC’s chief financial officer, told reporters this year.

Although he did not give a timescale or say what proportion of current business derives from foreign shores, he did say that the company’s international order book was much more vibrant than its domestic counterpart.

Africa was a particular bright spot for CCCC, which employs 112,000 people in 130 countries. At least three projects in Kenya were signed in the first quarter of this year, worth a total Rmb5.4bn ($820m), Mr Fu said. Permission to resume a controversial $1.4bn port city development in Sri Lanka was also obtained in the first quarter of 2016.

This same urge to expand abroad is driving the China Railway Group’s attempts ramp up its international business to compensate for softening domestic demand.

The China Railway Group plans to boost the share of its revenue that comes from overseas to at least 10 per cent by the end of 2020, up from about 5 per cent last year, according to Li Changjin, chairman of the construction group.

The company is working on 405 construction projects in 68 countries. These include the 427km China-Laos railway and the 329km Ethiopian national railway. “The current representation of overseas business is low, but that also means a huge room for improvement,” Mr Li told reporters recently. The 4,400km-long South American Twin Ocean railway project, linking the coasts of Brazil and Peru, ranks as the most ambitious plan so far.

The scale of such ambitions might appear absurd were it not for the backing of the world’s most powerful development finance institutions, which often suggest Chinese contractors to carry out the projects to which they lend.

Two Chinese policy banks — the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China — had outstanding loans to overseas borrowers amounting to an estimated $684bn at the end of 2014, just short of the $700bn owed to all six of the western-backed development institutions put together, according to a study by Boston University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Such largesse is not expected to dissipate as Beijing rolls out its “One Belt, One Road (OBOR)” initiative, a plan to build infrastructure in more than 60 countries between China and Europe, with an estimated investment of about $900bn over the next decade. “There are a lot of additional funds available because the OBOR initiative will accelerate overseas expansion,” says Christoph Nettesheim, senior partner at BCG, a consultancy, in Singapore. “You can see this already, the Chinese construction and construction-equipment companies are very active in OBOR-related areas.”

Chinese construction-equipment companies such as Sany, Zoomlion and XCMG are also pursuing ambitious international expansion plans, according to a study by the UBS Evidence Lab, which analysed about 15,000 construction equipment dealerships around the world.

The Chinese companies are likely to boost their global market share outside China to about 15 per cent by 2025, up from about 7 per cent currently, according to the analysis.

“We think the Chinese are making moves to expand further into the west and we think they have a very good chance to take market share, if they are fully committed to doing so,” says Steven Fisher, UBS analyst.

Mr Fisher says the biggest competitive advantage of Chinese companies was a relatively low cost base that allowed them to offer discounts in the region of 15-40 per cent to equivalent premium brand equipment.

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