Recent central Asian investments by China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC) and China Petrochemical, each of which is poised to take an 8.3 per cent stake in a Caspian Sea oil and gas field, have highlighted an ostensibly meagre but rapidly growing phenomenon - Chinese firms' overseas investment activities. According to figures compiled by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, China's foreign direct investment (FDI) outflow reached just US$1.8 billion in 2001 and its outward FDI stock (accumulated by Chinese companies abroad) US$27.6 billion. Compared with FDI into China of US$46.8 billion in that same year and an inward FDI stock (accumulated by foreign companies in China) of US$452 billion, these are paltry figures. They are also misleading. Chinese companies are more active overseas than official statistics give them credit for. The National Bureau of Statistics does not even compile outward FDI numbers in its statistical yearbook - an omission that is evidence of Beijing's general discomfort where capital outflows are concerned and Chinese companies' skill at disguising them. Take China's 2001 outward FDI stock figure of US$27.6 billion. That year Hong Kong reported US$123 billion in accumulated investment from the mainland. This is not to say China's outward FDI figures are grossly underestimated. Hong Kong's inward FDI figures are just as misleading in the opposite extreme, measuring foreign 'investment' that is merely passing through the special administrative region like 'tourists' transiting through Chek Lap Kok. The huge variance shows how difficult it is to pin down the extent of Chinese investment overseas. But if quantifying China's outward FDI is near impossible, qualifying it is not. Companies such as CNOOC and China Petrochemical, parent of Hong Kong-listed Sinopec, are typical of one strain of outward FDI that, motivated by China's geopolitical concerns as much as commercial ones, seeks to secure strategic overseas energy sources. China's three largest energy firms - the other being China National Petroleum - have invested in at least 14 countries including Indonesia, Iraq, Kazahkstan, Myanmar, Sudan and Yemen. At the other end of the spectrum are increasingly ambitious consumer and high-technology companies such as Beijing-based BOE Technology, in the news for its acquisition of a South Korean liquid crystal display company last month, or Qingdao's Haier, which has a refrigerator plant in South Carolina and a headquarters building in downtown Manhattan. For every high-profile investment there are plenty that never make it on to the radar screen.