American Express received approval to start bank card clearing services in China.

American Express China

American Express Co. received approval to start bank card clearing services in China, making it the first foreign payments network to be allowed to process local currency transactions in one of the world’s largest markets.

The People’s Bank of China granted a network clearing license to American Express’s China joint venture, Express (Hangzhou) Technology Services Co., the central bank said in a statement on Saturday. The company, which won initial approval in 2018, is required to start the clearing service within six months, according to the statement.

The approval marks a win for the card giant amid rising political tension between the U.S. and China sparked by the coronavirus outbreak and a crackdown on Hong Kong. It underscores China’s commitment to opening its $45 trillion financial markets this year, in a bid to attract foreign capital and support growth.

AmEx will face large domestic competitors and a well-developed market for mobile payments. Mobile transactions topped 190 trillion yuan ($27 trillion) in China in 2018, making it the world’s largest such market, according to iResearch. Ant Financial’s Alipay and Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s WeChat Pay are the dominant firms.

China had 8.5 billion bank cards in circulation at the end of September, with over 90% of them debit cards.

The approval is welcome news for New York-based AmEx. Spending on the firm’s cards in May was down in the mid-30% from a year earlier, after a 45% decline in March. The company set aside $2.6 billion in provisions for losses in the first quarter, while its shares have fallen 18% this year.

China committed to speeding up access to its market for card companies as part of the phase one U.S. trade deal signed earlier this year. It’s been a long process since the nation in June 2015 opened to licensing foreign firms to end a monopoly by state-run China UnionPay Co. Mastercard Inc. in February won initial approval to set up its bank card clearing business in China, while progress has been slow for Visa Inc.

The opening to card companies is part of a broader plan by China to give access to its markets, which also includes insurance, asset management and investment banking. BlackRock Inc. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. are among a bevy of firms that are preparing to pile in full bore to capture profits from China’s fast-growing wealth.

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