Deepening economic ties: Thai conglomerate backs Chinese firm's expansion overseas

April 28, 2013


A seemingly endless stream of business executives, shoppers and tourists flow to and from the tall office guildings, department stores and the row of street stalls on Silom Road in central Bangkok.

On a corner stands the 30-story headquarters of the Charoen Pokphand Group, one of Thailand's leading global commercial conglomerates, which has an emphasis on foodstuffs.

On the 28th floor is the office of CP vice chairman Thanakorn Seriburi, who also goes by the name Li Shaozhu, and who has been described by a local newspaper as “one of Thailand's most outstanding executives.”

A third-generation Chinese immigrant, Seriburi's business endeavors are currently drawing international attention. He recently decided to enter into a joint venture with China's SAIC Motor Corp., to manufacture automobiles in Thailand.

This effectively means that the first overseas foray by the private brand of China's largest automotive company is being backed by an ethnic Chinese conglomerate based in Southeast Asia.

“As ethnic Chinese in Thailand, we want to cooperate with China,” Seriburi says. “This will also be CP's first opportunity to move into automobile manufacturing.” SAIC is framing this heavyweight alliance with Thailand's biggest multinational corporation as seizing the chance to expand into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) market.

Companies owned by Chinese nationals and ethnic Chinese overseas in not only Hong Kong and Taiwan, but also Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and elsewhere have played a vital role in China's reform, liberalization and economic development since the late 1970s.

In many cases, these Chinese are pivotal business figures in the various countries and regions where they reside, and people, goods, and money have flowed back and forth via their networks. This has given rise to an economic and cultural diffusion that is referred to in Chinese as “Greater China.”

The linkup between CP and SAIC represents a further deepening of this diffusion. Until recently, it had mainly been the case that technology, goods and money flowed into China from other countries. However, the Chinese public and private sectors are now placing their hopes on companies owned by ethnic Chinese overseas to act as partners in their efforts to expand outside their border.

“In Shanghai, there is a government policy called 'Zouchuqu' (overseas expansion),” Seriburi says. “They decided to move into Thailand because it is the center of automotive manufacturing in Southeast Asia, as well as the existence of their old friend the CP.”

Back when Seriburi was chairman of a joint venture company in Shanghai that manufactured air conditioners, its president was Hu Maoyuan, who is now chairman of SAIC. Seriburi says this personal connection was a factor in sealing the deal.

CP also happens the first company to invest in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, created in China in 1980. CP's registration number is 001. Through joint ventures with U.S. and Chinese companies, it built feed mills and poultry farms. Seriburi took command as company president.

“I had to reconcile differences in the business culture between China, the United States,and Thailand," he says. "To make matters worse, the Chinese and Shenzhen governments wanted to have their say, too. I spent every day on edge and (felt as if I had) aged 10 years in the space of three.”

In the 33 years since then, Seriburi has led CP's Chinese ventures in country. The CP has orchestrated as many as 200 ventures now, including those in motorcycle and scooter manufacturing and finance.

He has also served as chairman of the Thailand-China Business Council, was named an honorary citizen of Shanghai and also owned a home in the city. A photo of him with former Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping sits in his office. Seriburi also invested in Fuzhou when Chinese President Xi Jinping was secretary of the Fuzhou Municipal Committee in Fujian province. The strength of his ties with China is a source of pride for him.

Will there be more cases of companies run by ethnic Chinese overseas helping those from China expand overseas? Seriburi says the hurdle is high for Chinese manufacturers who rapidly advance into Europe or the United States in terms of technological capability and management techniques, and predicts that joint ventures with companies in Southeast Asian countries with large ethnic Chinese populations will increase for the time being.

“Joint ventures are also beneficial for host countries. What's more, ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia are patriotic Chinese," Seriburi says. "They're eager to help companies from China. It's also a way of giving back for their successful business ventures in China.”

Many Japanese manufacturers also have manufacturing bases in Thailand, which boasts the second largest gross domestic product in the ASEAN region. CP and other ethnic Chinese-owned companies are also engaged in numerous joint ventures with Japanese counterparts.

On the other hand, when breaking down Thailand's total foreign trade (exports and imports) on a country-to-country basis in 2011, Japan took first place with 14.5 percent, but China had closed the gap to come in at a close second with 12.7 percent.

“At present, Japanese companies are dominant,” says Hitoshi Ozawa, Bangkok Bank executive vice president. “But with the future in mind, there's a need for them to be more adaptive with regard to doing business with ethnic Chinese-owned companies, and trends in local society.”

Bangkok Bank, the largest in Thailand and also ethnic Chinese-owned, has long supported the endeavors of Japanese companies in the country. Ozawa believes the diffusion of the Greater China region is also pressuring them to change the way they do business in Asia.

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According Thanakorn Seriburi, many ethnic Chinese overseas are eager to help companies from China. (Photo: Tomoyoshi Isogawa)

According Thanakorn Seriburi, many ethnic Chinese overseas are eager to help companies from China. (Photo: Tomoyoshi Isogawa)

  • According Thanakorn Seriburi, many ethnic Chinese overseas are eager to help companies from China. (Photo: Tomoyoshi Isogawa)
  • Bangkok's Chinatown (Photo: Tomoyoshi Isogawa)
  • Bangkok's Chinatown (Photo: Tomoyoshi Isogawa)

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