BEIJING — The ritual is now familiar. European officials meet with Chinese leaders seeking assurances of help for the continent’s debt crisis. During smiling photo ops, the Chinese respond with the requisite promises to assist.
China will get involved “more deeply,” Premier Wen Jiabao said in mid-February at a meeting in Beijing with a top-level European Union delegation. China will support the E.U. “in its own way,” Vice President Xi Jinping said during a Feb. 20 visit to Ireland.
But behind those vague promises is reluctance by China to move too quickly and put the country’s vast foreign exchange reserve holdings at risk. At work is a cold-headed calculation — Chinese economic policymakers do not see a consensus in Europe as to what to do, and they do not think buying up euros, or more bonds of indebted E.U. countries, is a particularly safe bet.
China joined with other leading economies at the Group of 20 meeting in Mexico last weekend to insist that euro-zone countries do more themselves, and erect a stronger firewall, before expecting any outside help, delaying any decision until April.
The Chinese government directly holds about $1.132 trillion in U.S. Treasury securities, making it the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt. China does not reveal exactly how much euro debt it holds, but the amount is believed to be far less than U.S. Treasury securities.
“China is a long-term investor in Europe’s sovereign debt market,” Wen said in June at a news conference with the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban. “In recent years we have increased by quite a big margin our holdings of government bonds.”
Analysts here mention another reason for China’s hesitance to play a bigger role: The country does not want to be seen as the world’s financial rescuer, particularly at a time when growth at home is expected to slow down. And some have said any help should come with countervailing conditions, such as demanding that European countries relax restrictions on high-tech exports to China.
For now, Chinese leaders seem to prefer an alternative approach — encouraging private Chinese companies and state-owned firms to help Europe by swooping in to purchase cheap European assets, whether factories or fashion outlets, as part of the Chinese government’s “go global” investment strategy.
“Investing in Europe’s real economy is safer than buying euro bonds,” said Li Zhongmin, a researcher with the Institute of World Economy and Politics, part of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “Right now, the timing is good for China to invest in Europe because of the relatively low prices.”
China’s direct investment in Europe surged in 2011 over 2010, although the 2011 figures vary, depending on the source. In its Dragon Index, which monitors Chinese investment, A Capital, a private equity fund with offices in France and China, found that Europe accounted for 34 percent of China’s mergers and acquisitions in 2011, up from 10 percent a year earlier.
China’s Commerce Ministry counts something different, but a spokesman made the same point: China’s investments in Europe more than doubled in 2011.
The biggest deals included China’s Wanhua industrial group taking full control of the Hungarian chemical maker BorsodChem for $1.6 billion; a $2 billion takeover by China’s BlueStar of Norway’s chemical company Elkem; China’s State Grid International buying a 25 percent stake in Portugal’s REN energy company; and China’s Shandong Heavy Industry Group buying the indebted Italian yachtmaker Ferretti for $233 million in a deal completed this year.
China holds various forms of European debt, and Central Bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan recently promised visiting E.U. officials that Beijing would increase the euro-denominated proportion of the country’s $3.18 trillion in foreign exchange reserves.
Chinese officials, in public comments, have indicated they prefer to help participate in Europe’s sovereign bailout fund through the International Monetary Fund, rather than buying more bonds directly. But even the comments from Chinese leaders suggesting a preference for working through the IMF have been vague. Some in Chinese academic circles have also suggested that China use the leverage of help for Europe to increase its clout in the IMF.
Chinese and Western economists, academics and others say China’s leaders face something of a dilemma — a desire to help Europe, or risk seeing the country’s largest trading partner slide into recession, vs. the very real fear that buying European debt could simply be a bad investment.
One big problem, analysts said, is that Europeans themselves often seem divided on how far to go to help the most indebted euro-zone members. Added to that is the background worry of Chinese public opinion, as expressed on Internet forums and microblogging sites. Many here seem dead-set against using China’s resources to help Europe, saying China is still a developing country while Europe, despite its problems, remains relatively rich.
“For Europe to guarantee its ability to repay its debts, and to eliminate the risk of this debt crisis repeating itself, Europeans must wake up from the dream of enjoying a good life without working hard, bear a period of painful adjustment, and start reforming their government financial and welfare systems completely,” said Mei Xinyu, a researcher for the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, a Commerce Ministry think tank.
Others here noted another possible reason for China’s reluctance: The U.S. government, they said, has also seemed hesitant about making any contribution to Europe’s bailout.
Throughout the euro-zone crisis, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner has said that Europe has enough resources to handle its own problems and that the IMF is adequately funded. If Chinese leaders see the United States as reluctant to get more involved, some analysts said, then Beijing might also prefer to stay on the sidelines of the euro rescue — with the United States essentially providing cover for China.
“I don’t think they’re going to be a direct participant in any bailout,” said Nicholas R. Lardy, a China expert with the Peterson Institute for International Economics, because Chinese policymakers do not see any benefit to it.
But Chinese business leaders do see opportunity in cheap assets.
“Right now, we are negotiating with a machinery factory in Germany,” said Liu Zhong, president of a machinery company in Suzhou, in Jiangsu province. “It is a good time for us to invest in Europe, partly due to the euro debt crisis.”
Researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.