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Australian banks advance to Central, Western regions

SHANGHAI - Australian banks are set to ride the urbanization boom of China's inland cities to offset the overall low-key presence in the world's fastest-growing economy.

During a trade delegation trip to four inland cities, Australia's four major banks - Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd (ANZ), Commonwealth Bank Group, Westpac Banking Corp and National Australia Bank Ltd - expressed their joint commitment to extend their presence in China's central and western regions in the next five years.

With more than 25 years of operations in China, ANZ established a Chinese-language operations hub in Chengdu, the capital city of Southwest China's Sichuan province, in the first half of 2011, and is eyeing expansion to other cities in the region.

The move followed ANZ's establishment of its fourth lending branch in Chongqing in March.

Chongqing is nearby and the only municipality in the region, said Grant Knuckey, deputy chief executive of ANZ China.

"This is an important region that we are closely following, as the Chinese government has set out an economic rebalancing development plan that focuses on the central and western areas," said Knuckey.

Likewise, Commonwealth Bank will invest in two additional county banks in Henan, Central China, after forming three joint ventures in the province.

The bank is dedicated to another five partnerships in the neighboring Hebei province by the end of 2012.

"Holding 20 percent shares in Bank of Hangzhou Co Ltd and Jinan City Commercial Bank Co Ltd, we will continue to grow our business by focusing on the key inland cities," said Stanley Lo, general manager of Commonwealth Bank's Shanghai branch.

While latecomers such as Westpac and National Australia Bank Ltd have just gained their footholds in first-tier cities such as Shanghai, they have made strategic plans and will keep a close eye on the southwestern regions, "where GDP growth has outpaced that of coastal areas", said Corey Xu, executive director of Westpac's Shanghai operation.

As the Chinese economy continues to undergo structural changes, "the coming decade will feature rapid growth in inland cities and further movement up the value-added chain to more complex services", said Craig Emerson, the Australian trade minister.

He led the team and concluded the visit in Shanghai on Wednesday.

"Therefore, these changes will open up new opportunities for Australian companies across a wide range of service industries, notably the financial services, that Australia is well-placed to supply," Emerson said.

The financial sector is the largest contributor to Australia's national output, accounting for 11 percent of the country's GDP, or A$135 billion ($139.6 billion) of real gross added value in 2010, according to the statistics compiled by the Australian trade commission.

But data about the big four's China operations are not available, and details about the amount of investment in inland regions were not disclosed.

This is largely because the banks have yet to accrue a salient market share in China, according to Sheng Nan, an analyst with UOB-Kay Hian Investment Consulting (Shanghai) Co Ltd.

"Australian banks are far from scale players in China's financial arena, compared with other foreign banks, because they are more concentrated on the local markets than building a global network," said Sheng.

The expanded bank services not only shows their confidence in China's macro economy, but is likely to anchor, and serve, the strengths of Sino-Australian trade ties, such as the flourishing raw materials and energy deals, said Kevin Fu, a banking specialist with CCID Consulting Co Ltd.

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