THE protracted battle between Chrysler Corp and Daimler-Benz for the much-coveted US$1 billion deal to build mini-vans in China is nearly over. Although Beijing has yet to announce whom it will partner for the colossal project, Daimler-Benz chairman Edzard Reuter has as good as admitted that his group has lost the fight. The admission comes at a time when United States Commerce Secretary Ron Brown's ''commercial diplomacy'' has scored a coup for corporate America by winning billions of dollars in new Chinese deals. And Mr Brown is not coy about his achievement. ''To my knowledge, this is the largest number of contracts in terms of value that have ever been signed or completed during a business mission,'' he said, referring to the more than $5 billion worth of deals signed, of which at least $2 billion has a direct US content. There is little doubt that Chrysler stands a pretty good chance of clinching the deal on its own merits; yet there is no denying that some nudging from Mr Brown is useful. Indeed, Chrysler's fight with Daimler-Benz is more than a clash of two car giants. If anything, it illustrates how useful goodwill generated by a foreign government is in doing business in China. From lobbying Chinese Premier Li Peng to packaging attractive financing, Mr Brown has mobilised the full weight of the his government to help propel the US private sector to the front of the contracts queue. That Mr Brown's hardsell has benefited Chrysler as much as the other companies should come as no surprise. The US Commerce Secretary is certainly not blazing a trail. He is responding to the challenge from many foreign governments, which have fallen over themselves to set foot in Beijing to help deliver a competitive edge for their private sector. There is nothing wrong with the strategy. Successful economic engagements between governments, after all, are meant to translate into more contracts for private businessmen. And China is going to provide the battleground for foreign governments to spar for favours from Beijing. Hardly surprising. As Chrysler's chairman Robert Eaton once said: ''If I have one priority in the global market . . . it's China.''