As Chinese capital moves abroad, Europe offers an open door


A worker cycles through the China Petroleum & Chemical Corp (Sinopec) refinery in Beijing, China. In December, Sinopec teamed up with Talisman Energy UK to invest in Britain’s oil and gas industry, part of China’s increasing foreign investment in the euro zone. (Nelson Ching/Bloomberg)

Maybe it’s bargain shopping. Maybe it’s the fallout from the strict U.S. security climate. Maybe it’s a sign of China becoming more comfortable with its international role.

But as Chinese companies and entrepreneurs have moved to invest more overseas, they have been drawn increasingly to Europe, where a two-year surge in foreign direct investment from China has eclipsed the amount flowing to the United States.

Over the past two years, Chinese companies invested more than $20 billion in the European Union, compared with $11 billion in the United States, according to a new report from the Rhodium Group.

The trend highlights the tension in the United States between the advantages of foreign investment and the suspicions surrounding China as an economic and military competitor. Some proposed deals in the United States have foundered on security concerns, and the Obama administration recently launched an effort to try to curb hacking, intellectual property theft and other practices that U.S. authorities have traced to China.

At the same time, there’s a strong incentive not to lose out on the jobs foreign money can create. Although the Obama administration has focused on boosting exports as a way to battle high unemployment, direct investment from overseas can also generate jobs — as workers at Japanese auto plants, Spanish transport firms and Swiss banks can attest.

Whether to secure raw materials, technology or new markets, Chinese overseas investment is expected to grow rapidly in coming years as the country puts its massive annual budget surpluses to work and tries to rely less on internal investment and exports.

As of 2007, China was annually investing only about a billion dollars each in the United States and the 27-nation E.U. — a paltry amount given the size of those two economies. Although the figures are still small compared with the amounts that, for example, Japanese investors hold in the United States or that flow among the E.U. countries, the trends are significant.

Rhodium Group analysts said a few factors are at work. European asset prices are depressed by recession and a lingering financial crisis, and Chinese investors are being welcomed to “cash-strapped” European companies.

In addition, said researchers Thilo Hanemann and Adam Lysenko, U.S. security reviews have killed some deals and probably discouraged other investors.

By contrast, Chinese investors have taken stakes in such sensitive, high-profile assets as London’s Heathrow Airport. Compared with the scrutiny telecommunications giant Huawei has received in the United States, the company has invested heavily in Europe with little trouble.

“Chinese interest in advanced economy assets will continue to be strong in coming years,” the Rhodium report says. “The political response will be critical for future deal-making.”

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