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Trudeau shoots down Chinese takeover of Canadian construction firm Aecon on national security grounds

The bid for the strategically important construction firm by a unit of China Communications Construction Company is the first major foreign takeover blocked by the Trudeau government

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 May, 2018, 8:17am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 May, 2018, 7:54pm

The Canadian government blocked a proposed takeover of construction firm Aecon Group Inc by a unit of China Communications Construction Company Ltd in the latest move by Western nations weighing national security concerns associated with Chinese investment.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government announced its decision Wednesday after launching a security review of the C$1.2 billion (US$930 million) deal earlier this year, according to a statement from Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains. A representative from Toronto-based Aecon wasn’t immediately available for comment.

US. President Donald Trump earlier this year blocked Broadcom Ltd’s hostile takeover of Qualcomm Inc because it could “impair the national security of the United States.” Trump has killed several foreign deals involving China since taking office and his administration continues to spar with China over trade. This is the first major foreign takeover blocked by the Trudeau government since he won power in 2015.

“We listened to the advice of our national security agencies throughout the multi-step national security review process under the Investment Canada Act,” Bains said in the statement. “Based on their findings, in order to protect national security, we ordered CCCI not to implement the proposed investment.”

In order to protect national security, we ordered CCCI not to implement the proposed investment
Canadian Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains

Canada is “open to international investment that creates jobs and increases prosperity, but not at the expense of national security,” Bains added.

Shares of Aecon, which helped build Toronto’s iconic CN Tower, declined in recent weeks to the lowest since the deal was announced in October on concern that it would be blocked. Aecon’s construction work includes several sectors that could impact national security, including building out the nation’s telecommunications networks.

Aecon closed at C$17.34 in Toronto trading Wednesday, 14 per cent below the C$20.27 a share offer from CCCC International Holding Ltd. to acquire the construction firm. Before the recent declines, there was widespread speculation in Canada that the deal might be approved as Trudeau sought warmer ties with China.

A person familiar with the file, speaking on condition they not be identified, said the government did its due diligence and ultimately followed the advice of Canadian national security agencies that had reviewed the deal and had information that was not publicly available.

Aecon’s project portfolio includes work in sensitive fields such as telecommunications, nuclear power and military housing and training facilities, Anita Anand, a professor of law at the University of Toronto who holds J.R. Kimber Chair in Investor Protection and Corporate Governance, said in an interview before the decision was announced. She had called for it to be blocked.

“There is clear evidence that there are national security issues at play in this transaction,” she said in an earlier interview. If government sees “reasonable grounds to believe there’s a potential injury to national security, then it should intervene.”

Aecon operates companies across the mining, infrastructure, energy and services industries, building projects from factories, roads and sewers to theatres, book stores and hotels, according to its website. CCCI’s Beijing-based parent is one of the largest engineering and construction companies in the world. Its core businesses include infrastructure construction and design and dredging, with revenue of US$62 billion.

The move comes at a critical point for the future of the country’s trade relationships. Canada is considering launching trade talks with China as it seeks to become less reliant on the US market. It is also haggling with the US and Mexico over how to update the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Chinese acquisitions in Canada’s economy have cooled since 2012, when the previous Conservative government imposed limits on investment by state-owned enterprises in the energy sector following CNOOC Ltd’s takeover of Nexen Inc. in Alberta.

In 2009, national security considerations were formally adding as a consideration under Canada’s foreign investment review process. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service warned in 2012 that some foreign state-owned enterprises may represent a threat to national security.