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Aided by Financial Crisis, China Snaps Up Natural Resources Worldwide

"As soon as we launched the project, we had 100 people registered and ready to go," said Dai Jianzhong, chief executive of SouFun Holdings, which organized the trip. "Now the number has reached 400. Apparently, the American real estate market has a great appeal to Chinese buyers."

China's Commerce Ministry organized a similar shopping expedition -- but for Chinese companies to visit foreign companies -- the week of Feb. 25. Commerce Minister Chen Deming took with him about 90 executives, who signed contracts worth about $10 billion in Germany, $400,000 in Switzerland, $320 million in Spain and $2 billion in Britain. The deals were mostly for the purchase of goods, including olive oil, 3,000 Jaguars and 10,000 Land Rovers.

The Commerce Ministry said Monday that it intends to send more investment missions abroad this year. Although details are still being worked out, the itineraries will probably include the United States, Japan and Southeast Asia, the ministry said.

Foreign automakers may be next on China's acquisitions list.

On Feb. 23, Weichai Power, a diesel engine company, said it would spend about $3.8 million to acquire the products, technology and brand of France's Moteurs Baudouin, which designs and manufactures marine propulsive equipment such as engines and propellers.

That was a relatively small deal, but Chen Bin, director general of the National Development and Reform Commission's Department of Industry, hinted that larger acquisitions may be in the works. He noted on the sidelines of a news conference on the economy late last month that overseas car companies are facing cash difficulties at the same time their Chinese counterparts "need their technology, brands, talent and sales networks."

"It will be a very big challenge for Chinese companies to stabilize the operations of foreign automakers and to maintain growth," Chen acknowledged, according to the official People's Daily, but he added that if the companies decide to acquire such assets, "the government will support them."

The one country that appears conspicuously absent from China's corporate bargain-hunting spree is the United States.

Many Chinese investors are still stung by the memory of China National Offshore Oil's 2005 attempt to buy a stake in the U.S. energy company Unocal. The deal fell apart after U.S. lawmakers expressed concern about the national security implications of China controlling some of the country's oil resources.

Xiong Weiping, president of Chinalco, whose bid for a larger stake in Rio Tinto is China's biggest outbound investment to date, has taken measures to address concerns as scrutiny of that deal has increased. The deal will be put to a shareholder vote in May or June and must also be approved by Australia's Foreign Investment Review Board.

At a news briefing in Sydney on March 2, Xiong assured the country that Chinalco is not seeking a majority share of the mining giant and that its management and corporate strategy would not change. Xiong emphasized that "the transaction will in no way lead to any control of the natural resources of Australia."

Zha Daojiong, an energy researcher at Peking University, said Chinese companies feel they may be discriminated against in the United States because of the mistaken perception that they are all state-owned or state-directed.

"Foreigners question these companies' intentions and tend to link their moves with government instructions," Zha said, "but I should say it is really hard to tell whether this is true nor not."

Researchers Wang Juan and Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.

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