By Yoko Kubota
Chinese authorities are set to approve Qualcomm Inc.'s planned $44 billion acquisition of Netherlands-based NXP Semiconductors NV in the next few days, according to people familiar with the matter, in what would be another significant step toward easing frayed U.S.-China trade relations.
China's State Administration for Market Regulation, which has been conducting the antitrust review, will hold a meeting on the matter Monday, according to the people. They said a contingent of Qualcomm's legal team arrived in Beijing this weekend to hammer out final details.
Approval would remove the last hurdle for a deal that has been stuck for months amid U.S.-China trade tensions, but one of the people said it could come with conditions. Chinese regulators have expressed concerns that the merged company would crowd out domestic businesses in areas such as mobile payments. NXP offers technology and services used for mobile payments.
The likely approval comes as the Trump administration is battling Congress to roll back penalties on Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE Corp., and as U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross prepares to lead an interagency delegation to Beijing starting June 2, where he is set to meet China's chief economic envoy, Liu He.
The acquisition of NXP is considered critical for San Diego-based Qualcomm, which is dominant in smartphone chips but is looking for growth in other areas. Among NXP's products are chips for automobiles, a rapidly expanding sector as more technology is packed into cars.
Qualcomm had been waiting for Beijing's approval to proceed with the purchase of the Dutch company, having secured permission from the eight other major antitrust regulators around the world.
A spokesman for China's Commerce Ministry said last month that the agency had conducted a preliminary review of the Qualcomm deal's impact on competitors and the market, and had found "issues that are hard to resolve, making it difficult to eliminate the negative impact."
The State Administration for Market Regulation couldn't be reached immediately for comment.
On Saturday, Qualcomm's President Cristiano Amon spoke at the Big Data Expo in Guiyang, southern China. While he didn't touch on the company's plan to acquire NXP, he emphasized Qualcomm's commitment to China. "China is very important for Qualcomm," he said. "We're rooted in China, we have developed a number of very strong partnerships. Nothing can separate us from China."
China had been holding up reviews of multibillion-dollar takeovers as leverage as Beijing seeks to fend off the Trump administration's trade offensives. But since earlier this month, when President Donald Trump said in a tweet that he would step in to get ZTE back into business, Beijing has shown a willingness to ease the regulatory roadblocks faced by U.S. companies.
Last week, China approved U.S. private-equity firm Bain Capital's $18 billion purchase of Toshiba Corp's memory-chip unit, a move seen as a gesture of goodwill as President Xi Jinping's economic envoy, Mr. Liu, was visiting Washington for trade talks. That same week, China's Vice President Wang Qishan told a group of visiting foreign business representatives, including a Qualcomm executive, that the Qualcomm and NXP deal stood a good chance of being approved by Chinese regulators, according to people with knowledge of the meeting.
The U.S. and its allies have been pressing Beijing to green light the deal. U.S. trade negotiators raised the issue with Mr. Liu recently in Washington, people briefed on the talks said. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany also lobbied for the deal in her meeting with Mr. Xi this week, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
In the case of ZTE, the Trump administration is now working to ease U.S. sanctions that had threatened to shutter China's second-largest telecom-equipment maker and the fourth-largest vendor of mobile phones in the U.S.
The U.S. Commerce Department last month banned U.S. companies from supplying the Chinese company for failing to live up to the terms of an agreement over ZTE's evasion of sanctions on sales to Iran and North Korea. Qualcomm was one of ZTE's key suppliers.
But Trump administration officials have been trying to negotiate a reprieve, saying that they never intended to put ZTE out of business and noting that the action is also hurting U.S. firms that supply ZTE.
That has drawn a backlash from Democratic lawmakers who say ZTE's violations were serious and should be punished.
The developments come as both sides appear to be retreating from the brink of trade war, declaring a truce amid ongoing negotiations. China has agreed to buy more U.S. farm products, energy and services, and last week said it would slash tariffs on imported cars from 25% to 15% starting July 1.
contributed to this article.
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