When Chubb Corp chairman Dean O'Hare first visited China the year was 1978 and Beijing had just inaugurated the reform policies that would alter the country's economic direction. Mr O'Hare was travelling as part of a United States Department of Commerce delegation exploring business opportunities. The expedition, he recalled, was memorable, with 50 executives cavalcading from Guangzhou to Beijing in a convoy of customised buses that allowed them to sightsee during the day and travel at night. Much has changed, Mr O'Hare acknowledged last week, arriving in China to open Chubb's first property and casualty operational branch in Shanghai. 'This is not the China of 20 years ago, or 10 years ago,' he said. Nonetheless, Chubb is entering a market that is severely limited by government regulation and fought over by a handful of other foreign companies. Nationwide, Beijing has licensed only 15 foreign property and life insurers in the cities of Shanghai and Guangzhou, although American International Assurance (AIA) also holds a licence for the city of Shenzhen and has established a sub-branch in the Guangdong city of Foshan. Last year, their total market share amounted to less than 5 per cent of the country's 139.3 billion yuan (about HK$130.46 billion) in premium income. In Shanghai, the country's most hotly contested market, geographic restrictions have meant overseas property vendors are allowed to sell policies only to those wholly owned foreign companies and foreign-invested companies located within city boundaries. Last year, total premium income for the city's four overseas non-life insurers amounted to a meagre 234 million yuan, or about 5 per cent of Shanghai's non-life premium total of 3.66 billion yuan. AIA was the market leader, capturing an estimated 45 per cent of the foreign market, followed by Winterthur with 30 per cent and Tokio Marine & Fire with 21 per cent. Employing an initial staff of 15 to be ramped within the coming weeks by 10 in-house agents, Chubb clearly is gambling on the future. China's entry into the World Trade Organisation promises to introduce important changes that should allow foreign vendors easier access. According to agreements concluded with Washington and the European Union, Beijing has agreed to allow foreign non-life insurers to underwrite large risks anywhere in the mainland on its accession to the world trade body. Moreover, foreign underwriters will be allowed to sell master policies for multinationals with subsidiaries throughout China, provided the majority of company foreign direct investment is placed in the city where the policy is sold. Beijing has also promised to open 12 more cities to foreign insurers within two years of accession. Chubb is pivotally positioned to take advantage of the post-WTO landscape, said the company's Greater China chief Ian Lancaster. 'We are a prominent property and casualty specialist that operates on a global basis,' he said. That should give Chubb a leg up in the market's leading growth areas, including underwriting for high-technology enterprises as well as comprehensive financial planning for large overseas and domestic multinational companies. 'We expect to attract the same kind of big customers in China that we have worldwide,' Mr Lancaster said.