Year in review: the influence of China in Southeast Asia

Economic uncertainty may be prompting greater caution among Chinese property investors, but the country’s ever-strengthening links with Southeast Asia means that the country remains a huge impact on property trends in the region

China’s ever-strengthening links with Southeast Asia make it a preeminent force in the region

n the first two days of China’s Mid-Autumn Festival in September, usually an annual buying spree, only four new homes were sold in Beijing, according to data from Centaline Property Agency. By any measure, these figures are dismal; 180 new homes were bought over the same period in 2018.

But then, 2019 has proven wildly unpredictable for a country where the locals cherish wending, the oft-spoken Mandarin word for stability. Unrest in Hong Kong has routinely boiled over, the trade war with the US is entering its third year, and the overall economic outlook seems like the worst in more than a generation. GDP growth is predicted to fall below the 6.6 percent recorded in 2018, already the worst year since 1990.

China’s domestic woes have spread globally. To put 2019 into perspective: CBRE data show South Korean investors in outbound commercial real estate outspending Chinese more than four times over in the first eight months of the year. Two years ago, the picture was reversed. “The purchasing momentum by mainland Chinese investors has faded,” says Tom Moffat, head of capital markets in Asia for CBRE.

In Southeast Asia, diminished Chinese appetite for risk is tempered by a competing positive trend: after leaving China amid increased tariffs and uncertainty, much manufacturing capacity has arrived in Southeast Asia, in turn boosting economic growth while attracting Chinese keen to seek out a surer thing.

China’s retreat from the global property market, paired with a greater emphasis on Southeast Asia amid the enduring trade war with the US, have combined with local dynamics in unexpected ways 

Although frontier in the eyes of many investors, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam all border China’s southwest while Thailand, Cambodia, and to a lesser degree the rest of the region all lie just a short flight from southern Chinese cities including Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

“Most Chinese buyers are aware of the larger trends, specifically how Southeast Asia will be the largest beneficiary of manufacturing leaving China,” says Colin Bogar, CEO of Shanghai-based Property Passbook, an online portal for new residential real estate investment. “Despite a slowing economy, many Chinese people remain keen on asset diversification.”

China’s retreat from the global property market, paired with a greater emphasis on Southeast Asia amid the enduring trade war with the US, has combined with local dynamics in unexpected ways.

Take Vietnam as a case in point. The sternest regional critic of China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, Vietnam had faced a de facto boycott by Chinese visitors a few years ago. This year, Chinese buyers are falling over themselves to enter Vietnam’s buoyant property sector, which has been sustained by recent legal changes permitting foreign investment. In 2016, Chinese comprised two percent of luxury home buyers; this year, they accounted for more than a third of Chinese snapping up property in the high-end segment, according to D’Andrea & Partners, a Shanghai-based law firm that recently expanded into Vietnam.

More: China’s remote cities emerge stronger from downturn

According to Bogar of Property Passbook, growth in Chinese residential buys is greater in Vietnam than in any other Southeast Asian market this year. Increasing Chinese appetite for Vietnamese property is spurring record price rises, according to JLL data, with average residential property prices growing 24 percent in the third quarter while those for luxury buys soaring 65 percent.

Back when the Chinese remained cautious of Vietnam a few years ago, they embraced Cambodia, largely because the latter backed China in its South China Sea claims. “[Chinese] buyers do feel reassured when they see strong ties between the two countries,” says Georg Chmiel, executive director of the China-based property portal

But in 2019, the Chinese dream in Cambodia turned sour. Chinese developers had rushed into the port city of Sihanoukville to build dozens of new casinos and apartments to house armies of croupiers and service personnel. When a building collapsed in the city last June, leaving 28 dead and 26 injured, five of the seven people charged with involuntary manslaughter were Chinese nationals. This prompted an outcry within the influential Chinese business community in Cambodia. The following quarter, Chinese inquiries for Cambodian residential property plummeted to the lowest levels since the boom gathered pace in Sihanoukville in early 2017. “At the same time, the annual rate of growth has dropped into negative territory,” states Chmiel.

A high-speed rail link through Laos from China is emblematic of the influence the latter nation continues to exert in Southeast Asia

In Laos, an influx of people and capital across the border from China has continued unabated despite economic uncertainties facing the World’s second-largest economy. There’s been positive sentiment among Chinese toward Southeast Asia’s only landlocked nation. In two years, Laos is due to open its first railway—built using Chinese loans and engineering know-how—connecting Kunming with the UNESCO-listed city of Luang Prabang and capital Vientiane. This cuts road travel times in half through the heart of the country.

As thousands of Chinese workers have poured into Laos to work on the railway, Chinese airlines have expanded routes, connecting Vientiane to nearly a dozen cities including lesser-known Changsha and Nanning. Anticipating the surge in Chinese visitors, Vientiane-based Chinese entrepreneur Yao Bin last year opened Laos’ biggest high-end apartment building, overlooking the Landmark Diplomatic Residential Compound. The additional supply of executive-level apartments in tiny Vientiane caused prices at the top of the residential market in the city to plummet by 30 percent, informs Hong Kong-based New Asia Property which tracks property in Laos and Myanmar. “Overall the residential market is [still so] small in Laos, especially in the condominium sector,” says Tony Picon, managing director of New Asia Property.

In Myanmar, initial investor excitement that caused Western brands including Burger King and Coca-Cola to rush into the country following political reforms, has abated amid ethnic tensions in Rakhine State and armed clashes in Shan State near the Chinese border this year. Interest by Chinese developers remains, informs Picon, but many are bit-part players lacking any sort of track record. “This leads to the possibility of poor-quality projects and sudden insolvency, which could blight the residential property market for years to come,” adds Picon.

Thailand is a huge hit with Chinese investors due to its status as a favourite with tourist visitors and retirees

In other words, Myanmar is facing the exact opposite of conditions favoured by increasingly cautious Chinese buyers looking for more stable returns amid economic uncertainty at home. Myanmar and Laos both remain outside bets for the majority of Chinese because of this, relates Chmiel of “While prices are low and the economic outlook is good, it still feels risky,” he says. “There are also few other reasons to purchase [in Myanmar and Laos] other than pure investment goals.”

Malaysia and Singapore remain safer bets for Chinese buyers, points out Chmiel, and still attract a far greater volume of inquiries—not only compared to Laos and Myanmar, but also the Philippines and Indonesia.

With certainty and familiarity more important than ever for Chinese, it is little surprise that Thailand remains ahead of the rest in Southeast Asian residential property—both in terms of inquiries and actual sales—with few signs this will change in 2020. “A significant share of Chinese overseas investment is linked to education, retirement and vacation goals,” Chmiel tells Property Report. “[That is why] Thailand is top-ranked.”

This article is the fourth in a five-part series. It originally appeared in Issue No. 157 of PropertyGuru Property Report Magazine. Read the first, second, third, fifth parts here