One of the last news stories we covered before the Christmas break was that Lafarge Poland had selected China-based Nanjing Kisen International Engineering as the general contractor for a Euro100m-plus upgrade to its Małogoszcz cement plant. This appears to be the first major European cement plant upgrade project to be publicly run by a Chinese contractor. There may be other European projects in the sector run by Chinese companies ‘on the down-low.’
If it is the first then this is a significant milestone for the growth of the Chinese industry. It is a noteworthy first for Nanjing Kisen in the European Union. Europe is the home, after all, of a number of locally-based contractors and companies that can build or upgrade cement plants including FLSmidth, Fives, ThyssenKrupp, IKN and others. Indeed, all of the work on this project might actually be conducted by local companies, selected by the general contractor. For example, Lafarge Poland says that the general contractor will select a subcontractor on the Polish market.
It’s easy to fall into jingoistic nostalgia but should we really be surprised that China can competitively build cement plants given the ferocious growth of its own industry over the last few decades? Arguments by Western critics against growing Chinese dominance in industry have tended to home in on excuses why they might be ‘cheating’ such as intellectual property theft, unfair state aid or the use of low-cost infrastructure loans to countries along its Belt and Road Initiative. That last one carries some irony given that not so long ago discussions about developing world debt were framed in the context of the Cold War and the oil crisis in the 1970s. Western countries were seen as the bogeymen depending on one’s political outlook. With this in mind, the Financial Times recently reported on data released in December 2020 that suggested that China might be heading into its own overseas debt crisis. The takeaway message here is that attempting to apply China’s whopping infrastructure boom elsewhere might not work so well without the same level of control. Exporting production overcapacity abroad may simply turn out to be something like a giant Ponzi scheme! For the cement industry this may mean a pause or wind-down in the number of new plants backed by Chinese money, often with Chinese contractors tied in, and that the rise of Chinese engineering firms might not seem as unassailable as all that after all.
This leads into another noteworthy story that we also published before Christmas on China’s latest proposal to further reduce production capacity at home. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) wants to tighten the ratio of production capacity that has to be closed before new capacity can be built from 1.25:1 to 1.5:1. The kicker is that the new rules also include a clause intended to restrict the use of so-called ‘zombie’ capacity in the swapping process by limiting eligibility to productions lines that have been operated for two or more consecutive years since 2013. These rules seem targeted at the present day but they could potentially push Chinese cement production capacity per capita to rates more similar to those found in developed economies elsewhere (i.e. halve existing Chinese production capacity). Many of the country’s kilns were built in the early 2000s and the average lifespan of a clinker kiln is 50 years. This suggests that the ministry is thinking seriously about culling capacity by the administration’s carbon neutrality target of 2060.
Chinese penetration in the European cement plant market is more of an after-thought given the pace of projects in Asia and Africa over the last decade and the maturity of the sector. It can also be misleading given that some very-European-sounding engineering companies are actually owned by Chinese concerns. Yet no doubt local contractors and suppliers would like to keep any business they can. On the other hand, more market share may be found in Europe over the coming decades from retrofitting CO2 mitigating equipment or building the anticipated hydrogen revolution once the regulatory and financial framework starts to favour it. Or maybe shifts to service and/or machine intelligence-style packages are the way forward. Nanjing Kisen may be the first Chinese company to upgrade a European cement plant but the market focus may quickly move on. Time will tell.
Happy New Year from Global Cement