Hey, big spender

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 February, 2008, 12:00am

It took Shen Guoting more than six years and the loss of his project manager to win a contract late last year to develop the world's second-largest untapped copper mine, in Afghanistan.

In France, a trading company from Qingdao last month bought a 500-year-old chateau and vineyard near Bordeaux, the first acquisition by a Chinese firm in the French wine industry.

And on a smaller scale, three men and a woman from a city in Hubei province opened a restaurant in central Baghdad, serving noodles, dumplings and fried chicken (but no sweet and sour pork or Tsingtao beer).

These are three among thousands of examples of the biggest outflow of capital in China's history, turning it from the world's No 1 recipient of foreign investment into one of its largest providers.

It is comparable to Japan's spending spree in the late 1980s, after the yen rose 51 per cent against the US dollar in the two years following the Plaza Accord in September 1985, enabling Japanese investors to acquire dollar assets at bargain prices.

Driving China's investment boom is not only the need to secure oil, gas, copper, iron ore and other raw materials to run factories and power stations, but also the need to recycle billions of US dollars from years of record trade surpluses.

Ten years ago Beijing was struggling to find ways to stop capital leaving the country, but now it is encouraging companies and individuals to invest abroad, to spend surplus foreign exchange and slow the appreciation of the yuan and to obtain the best return on their capital.

In response, foreign leaders - such as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown last month - have visited China to sell their countries as good locations for Chinese firms to set up branches and acquire assets, just as they went to Japan and South Korea in previous years.

Similarly, US institutions which have lost billions of dollars in the subprime crisis have come to seek funds to recapitalise their losses.

It is a reversal of roles. A decade ago Chinese delegations scoured the world, seeking to persuade foreign companies to invest in cities and provinces they had never heard of.

The most dramatic example of the reversal came more than a week ago when the Aluminium Corp of China (Chalco) paid, with US mining firm Alcoa, US$14 billion to acquire a 9 per cent stake in Rio Tinto, a London-listed mining giant at the centre of a takeover battle.

Fred Hu, managing director of Goldman Sachs (Asia), says China's overseas acquisitions last year exceeded US$30 billion, up from US$21 billion in 2006 and US$10 billion in 2005.

Experts expect this year to be another year of record outward investment. Leading the charge are big state companies such as Chalco, oil and mining giants, steel companies, banks and insurance firms, with a war chest of billions of US dollars raised from the stock market and booming sales at home.

Their acquisitions - such as Industrial and Commercial Bank's US$5.5 billion purchase of 20 per cent of Standard Bank, Africa's biggest bank, and China Investment Corp's deal for 9.9 per cent of Morgan Stanley and 10 per cent of the Blackstone Group, a fund manager - make the newspapers.

Accompanying them are thousands of individual entrepreneurs such as Mr Shen, risking their fortunes in countries western investors often shun.

Mr Shen, after the fall of the Taleban in December 2001, began talks with the new Afghan government on developing the Aynak mine, which has 690 million tonnes of copper ore and can produce 11.3 million tonnes of copper, one-third of China's total reserves of the metal.

'The copper project has taken a long time to finalise,' he said. 'We needed to be patient and determined. There is a lot that we can do in that country. We plan to continue investing there.'

Negotiations were stalled by war, guerilla attacks, international bidding, protracted negotiations and the death of Mr Shen's project manager with the Afghan minister of mining and industry in a plane crash in 2003. Finally, last November, Mr Shen's company announced the deal. To win the contract, it had to promise to build a railway line and a power station, and develop a nearby coal mine.

The annual planned output of his mine, 300,000 tonnes, is equal to 20 per cent of China's copper imports. 'In Afghanistan, you may as well herd a flock of sheep as herd one,' he said. 'We plan to do a lot there.'

Longhai International, which bought the French vineyard, was set up in 2001 and works in property development, builds roads and bridges, sells seafood and imports wine.

'We are setting up leisure centres and VIP lounges where our customers can enjoy the best foreign wines and cigars,' said a company spokesman of the plans to import wine to its mainland centres. 'In recent years, imports of Bordeaux wine have rocketed and demand for famous brands will remain strong.'

The four Chinese in Baghdad are taking a bigger risk. 'We decided to come to see if there was opportunity,' said one named Wu. 'We think the situation in Iraq is getting better. We do not feel lonely because we work from 8am to 9pm each day.'

The previous tenant of Mr Wu's premises sold alcohol and was bombed by Islamic zealots who beheaded the owner. The risks are typical of those faced by thousands of Chinese working abroad.

A report published in December by the China Export and Credit Insurance Corp (Sinosure) said risks rose in nearly 30 per cent of the countries where Chinese firms operate last year, especially in those with natural resources.

Such risks included high levels of debt, rising nationalism, local armed conflicts, sudden changes in government policy and protectionism, often related to the record price of oil.

'Facing these new threats, Chinese companies and individuals cannot rely on the traditional methods of risk avoidance, and treat all the countries the same way. They must adopt new strategies,' the report said.

Sinosure is a state-owned insurance firm in Beijing that offers Chinese firms cover against political and commercial risks including war, nationalisation, expropriation and restrictions on the transfer and remittance of foreign exchange.

Last April in Ethiopia, nine Chinese workers were killed with 65 Ethiopians when anti-government rebels attacked an oil installation near the Eritrean border. Rebels in Niger abducted a Chinese mining executive looking for uranium, and Islamic radicals in Pakistan have killed Chinese working there. Chinese working in oil and telecommunications in Nigeria have been kidnapped.

And there are also a number of legal and political risks.

'The response in the world to the rise of China is more complicated than that provoked by the sudden wealth of Japan in the 1980s,' Mr Hu said. 'Most countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America genuinely welcome investment from China and believe that it is a reliable, long-term partner. But some countries criticise China for behaving like the western colonial powers of the past, stripping countries of their natural resources and not caring about the environmental impact.'

In rich countries, the reaction to the flood of Chinese capital has been mixed. Britain, Australia and Canada welcome Chinese investment, but the response has been cooler in the US, France and Germany. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have called for a European 'golden share' to protect strategic industrial assets from takeovers by foreign sovereign wealth funds, including the China Investment Corp (CIC), set up by Beijing last September.

The CIC has US$200 billion in assets, of which one-third is earmarked for overseas investment.

'There is no question of France remaining unable to react in the face of a rise in the power of extremely aggressive sovereign funds which only follow economic logic,' Mr Sarkozy said last year. 'France must protect its companies and give them the means to develop and defend themselves.'

EU economy commissioner Joaquin Almunia said the EU might restrict investments by government funds unless they disclosed more about what they invest in and why.

The Bush administration has welcomed Chinese investment but called for more transparency, but some members of Congress have said that strategic assets must be protected from overseas investors.