Medium-sized businesses are being urged to make the most of mainland China's economic boom.

UK firms are among the least likely to make the most of the opportunities arising from China's rapid growth and trail substantially behind several South-east Asian countries, Australia and the US, according to Grant Thornton's International Business Owners Survey.

Steve Line, international business partner at Grant Thornton in Birmingham, says: "China is a business opportunity of enormous proportions - but our attention, often with very good reason, has been mostly directed elsewhere, namely the EU and the US.

"While with each of these markets we enjoy histories of excellent trade relations, language, cultural and political similarities, it is vital that medium-sized UK businesses do not ignore the markets that are opening up in the Far East. Today, these opportunities don't come much bigger than those available in China."

The survey asked 7,000 owners of medium-sized businesses from 30 countries - including for the first time firms from mainland China - if they perceived mainland China's economic development as an opportunity or threat to their business.

T hose countries that regarded the Chinese market as providing significant opportunities were Hong Kong (52 per cent), Taiwan (51 per cent), Philippines (37 per cent), Thailand (35 per cent) and the US (34 per cent).

That contrasts sharply with the UK, where just over one in ten companies (11 per cent) saw China as an opportunity - on a par with the EU's result of ten per cent.

Respondents who believed that China's economic boom represents a significant threat to their business included the Philippines (54 per cent), Taiwan (53 per cent) and Mexico (44 per cent).

In the UK, the figure was 18 per cent.

"Some UK businesses have made inroads into China, but the point is that this market has the potential to yield far more returns than we are currently attempting to achieve," says Mr Line.

"This is especially true for those in the financial services, energy, ICT, healthcare, water, aerospace, automotive, construction and chemical industries.

"It is not all plain sailing. Aside from fierce competition from Chinese companies, business threats can include issues with the quality of products and services sourced in China as well as all the usual business barriers such as the country's mind-boggling scale, its complex legal system, an unfamiliar and often confusing business environment, language and cultural issues.

"One reason many European countries are also choosing not to engage in business with China, is because of the country's intellectual property laws.

"While laws are in place, they are not strongly enforced, thus posing a risk of unique IP being abused by competitors without them being consistently discouraged by strong legal or financial penalties."

On the plus side, the Midlands is one of the British regions where businesses believe they have reaped the most significant rewards from mainland China's economic boom.

Looking at opportunities to business, those in Scotland (22 per cent) believe mainland China presented the largest opportunities to medium-sized businesses followed by the North, North-east and North-west (15 per cent), and the Midlands (14 per cent).

Those in the North, Northeast and North-west (27 per cent) believe China's economic boom presents the greatest threat to their businesses, followed by the East of England (25 per cent), South-west, West and Wales (19 per cent) and the Midlands (18 per cent).

Focusing on the import market, 25 per cent of businesses in the east of England import from China, followed by

the Midlands (22 per cent), Scotland (18 per cent) and the South-west, West and Wales (18 per cent).

By comparison, fewer UK businesses export to China.

Commenting on the regional picture, Mr Line has relatively good news to report: "The regions are engaging more with China than the capital, which paints an encouraging picture for businesses around the country.

"Given that Scottish whisky exports to China have risen by 84 per cent in the last year alone, we are not surprised by the positive outlook the Scots' have.

"We would encourage more medium-sized businesses to look closely at imports, exports or outsourcing and see where they can take any advantage."

Nearly one in five medium-sized businesses worldwide now import from mainland China, with the largest importer being Hong Kong (45 per cent).

This compares with 17 per cent of UK mediumsized businesses.