* Report says U.S. companies more confident China will open up
* “Even-handed” enforcement seen as needed to reduce friction
* Says Trump visit might account for jump in perceptions (Adds Chinese Foreign Ministry comment)
By Michael Martina
BEIJING, Jan 30 (Reuters) - U.S. companies are more confident China will further open up to foreign investment in coming years, a top business lobby said on Tuesday, but it cautioned that an “astounding” three-quarters of its members do not feel welcomed by the Chinese government.
The American Chamber of Commerce in China also said in a report on its annual membership survey “even-handed enforcement of laws and regulations regardless of shareholder nationality” and an open investment environment were needed to reduce trade frictions between China and the United States.
“After several years of contraction, more companies are expanding investment, yet the growth in investment will remain much slower than historical levels,” the chamber said.
The outlook on sustainable economic growth in China was “generally positive”, with 46 percent of respondents expressing confidence that the government would further open China’s market to foreign investment within the next three years, up from 34 percent in the previous survey, it said.
But the chamber noted that its survey, filled out during October and November by 411 of the 849 members to whom it was sent, did not include “countless” companies because they are excluded from China’s market by government regulations.
It cautioned that U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to China in November might account for a jump in perceptions that U.S.-China relations would improve in the year ahead – 36 percent compared with 17 percent in the previous year’s survey.
Asked about the report, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China’s door would only open wider and the government would provide an even better investment environment for foreigners, treatment it hoped other countries would also extend to Chinese firms.
Trump has taken a hard line on China since that visit, which yielded no major outcomes on trade disputes, saying that he was considering major action against Beijing for alleged theft of intellectual property.
His administration has said the United States mistakenly supported China’s membership in the World Trade Organization in 2001 on terms that had failed to force Beijing to open its economy.
“There is a sense that strictly just dialogue has not really brought much in terms of progress. So perhaps some pressure will help get us more progress to a more balanced economic, commercial relationship,” the chamber’s chairman William Zarit told reporters when asked about the possibility of Trump imposing further tariffs on China.
Forty-six percent of respondents listed either stronger advocacy for a level playing field or applying “investment reciprocity as an approach to improve market access” as the top two ways the U.S. government could help foreign businesses in China.
The third most common response, at 14 percent, was pursuing multilateral regional free trade and investment agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal from which the Trump administration withdrew.
Fifty-nine percent of companies in technology and research and development-intensive sectors, in which Beijing has unveiled an ambitious Made In China 2025 plan to supplant foreign products, said they were treated unfairly compared to domestic companies, according to the survey.
“We see numerous policies that hamper foreign-invested companies, and also major market distortions being permitted in order to force technology transfer,” the chamber report cited an unidentified senior executive in the agribusiness sector as saying. (Reporting by Michael Martina; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Richard Borsuk and Sam Holmes)