Foreign law firms and market research consultancies are bracing themselves for a flood of enquiries about doing business in China now the country is racing towards World Trade Organization membership.
"CEOs around the world will be asking `what's our policy on China?', and we'll be busy because those questions are being asked," said a partner with a European law firm in Shanghai.
Lawyers and consultants doing due diligence on investment projects and market researchers who can answer questions on who is buying what in China will be the first to benefit from the sea change in investor sentiment.
Foreign investment, which flooded into China at the beginning of the 1990s, slowed to a trickle in the wake of the Asian financial crisis as Asian investors licked their wounds and Westerners shied away.
Actual foreign direct investment in China fell 11.4 percent last year to 40.4 billion dollars, while pledged investment plunged 21 percent from 1998 to 41 billion dollars.
Over the past two years foreign investors have been reevaluating their strategy on China, said Ken Davies, senior regional economist with the Economist Intelligence Unit.
"Before you had to be there because your competitors were, or because you were in for the long-haul. But people began to ask do you really have to be there if you are not making any money?," Davies said.
But even before China sealed a trade deal with the European Union in May and US Congress voted to grant China permanent normal trading relations, pledged foreign investment began to climb.
In the first two months of the year pledged foreign investment rose 13.6 percent year-on-year to 6.5 billion dollars, although actual investment fell 12.1 percent over the period.
"Companies are either taking a closer look at what they've got or looking into new projects," said EIU's Davies.
Numbers published in Shanghai Wednesday told a similar story.
Overseas investors in the city signed 422 million dollars worth of capital contracts last month, almost twice as much as in April 1999 and pledged contractual foreign investment climbed 13.6 percent in the first four months of the year, a local English daily reported.
Neil Davy, a research director with market research consultancy MBL China, said that fast-moving consumer goods firms will be looking to strengthen their position in China in the next six to twelve months.
"We expect a significant increase in interest, not only from existing companies in China looking to invest more but also new product launches," he said.
Consulting firms will also cash in on firms looking for distributors or potential joint-venture partners in order to enter the China market, Davy added.
The WTO deals hammered out with the United States and the EU will prize open the doors to foreign investment in areas ranging from insurance to information technology.
Foreign firms are looking to position themselves ahead of the pack by formulating their investment plans now before trade concessions and lower tariff barriers are phased in over a two to five year period.
Telecommunications and IT will likely lead the charge. China is poised to overtake Australia as the largest information technology market in the Asia-Pacific region outside Japan, according to market research firm International Data Corporation
European firms especially, will be looking to make up lost ground in the coming years, as Europe's IT firms have lagged behind the Japanese and Americans in building their China businesses, said Chi Lo, head of treasury research at Standard Chartered in Hong Kong.
"I am looking at a 20 percent year-on-year rise in foreign investment this year, and 10 percent in 2001," Lo predicted.