China may be removing UnionPay's regulatory monopoly over card payments clearing, but loosening its grip on the market is another matter.
New rules from China's State Council, which go into effect June 1, give Visa and MasterCard access to a country that has nearly 5 billion payment cards in circulation and a yearly card payment volume that's almost $7 trillion.
But despite the opportunity, "I'm not sure Visa and MasterCard can make a dent to the domestic transaction market in the very near future," said Aung Kyaw Moe, the founder and CEO of 2C2P, an e-commerce technology company that provides a service in Asia that's similar to Braintree or Stripe in the U.S. "China UnionPay is the only payment network that has been used in the market."
China's decision follows pressure from The World Trade Organization to open its market. The WTO in 2012 found China's rules broke international trade regulations by requiring all foreign bank card associations to settle transactions in foreign exchange, as well as pay access fees to use UnionPay's network for card transactions.
Despite the WTO's ruling, the Chinese government is responding to its view of the market more than political pressure, Kyaw Moe said.
"They're allowing networks in China now because they think that China UnionPay is no longer beatable," he said.
China UnionPay is the world's second largest card network after Visa, and it's aggressively pursuing international expansion of its own. UnionPay also has an extensive national Near Field Communication program in partnership with banks in China.
"China UnionPay is layered and embedded in the domestic market," Kyaw Moe said.
Visa and MasterCard did not comment for this story by deadline, but the CEOs of both card networks expressed optimism during their respective earnings calls last week.
MasterCard CEO Ajay Banga said China is a "clear opportunity for us over the next long-term decade. It's a large market and we will play there and we are encouraged by the announcement."
Banga did temper his enthusiasm, noting that the card network needs further clarifications from the Chinese government. MasterCard must also overcome a capital requirement of $160 million and an application process.
Tristan Hugo-Webb, associate director of Mercator Advisory Group's Global Payments Advisory Service, said the changes in the Chinese regulations do leave a lot of "grey area, so I would not be surprised if there was a delay."
Charlie Scharf, Visa's CEO, sees China's opening as "a significant and positive step." Visa is applying for a license in China, and "we're excited to participate in one of the most important markets in the world," Scharf said during last week's earnings call.
Like Banga, Scharf cautioned against expecting an immediate benefit from the new rules in China.
"We are not pursuing this for the short-term profit opportunity," he said. "This is a long-term commitment, which will pay off over the long term regardless of when we start to participate domestically in China. We do not expect this to be a meaningful contributor to our financial results for many years to come."
China's fast-growing e-commerce market is already attracting U.S. companies, and its loosening restrictions should get "other markets rolling," Hugo-Webb said. But Russia, which has recently added regulatory hurdles for Visa and MasterCard's access, provides a less welcoming example for countries in Europe and Asia to follow, he said.
"Countries aren't going to give up having some control over how card payments are handled," Hugo-Webb said.
Countries that already allow Visa and MasterCard but are still reliant on cash payments are likely to see a spike in card volume, Kyaw Moe said.
"In Myanmar, for example, the government payment system is only a couple of years old, so it's not as entrenched or nearly as large as China UnionPay" Kyaw Moe said. "And in some of the other countries in the region, like Thailand for example, MasterCard and Visa are the only way to make card payments. They will surely benefit from an overall reduction in cash."
Visa and MasterCard are most likely to win the spending of travelers entering and leaving China, Kyaw Moe said. Travel payments are among the major opportunities for Western payment companies entering a market with heavy restrictions on domestic card payments.