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China, Amid Uncertainty at Home and in Europe, Looks to Germany

Paul Geitner|The New York Times
Monday, 23 Apr 2012 | 4:13 AM ET

As Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China tours Europe this week, it is no accident that Germany occupies a special place on his itinerary. After all, Germany is the one European Union country that has a trade surplus with China.

Wen Jiabao
Frederic J. Brown | AFP Getty Images
Wen Jiabao

And it has also been a focus of Chinese investment in Europe — so much so that analysts say some Germans are growing wary as Chinese businesses have been snapping up German engineering companies.

Mr.Wen, making his sixth visit in eight years, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, on Sunday opened the annual trade fair in Hanover, billed as the world’s leading showcase for industrial technology.

They plan to witness the signing of an economic agreement at the Volkswagen headquarters, in Wolfsburg, on Monday.

According to German media reports, the deal will include the opening of a new car plant in the far western Chinese region of Xinjiang.

Mr.Wen’s agenda, as with a follow-up trip planned by his likely successor, Vice Prime Minister Li Keqiang, seems aimed at presenting an aura of business as usual, even as trade tensions flare with the West and the Communist Party at home is embroiled in its biggest scandal in years, involving the deposed Politburo member Bo Xilai.

“We shouldn’t be complacent about the stability of China’s leadership,” said Kerry Brown, head of the Asia program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. To do business and expand access to markets, “you need more predictability in the system,” he said in an interview. “There’s too much uncertainty at the moment.”

One thing that does seem certain is that neither Mr.Wen nor Mr.Li will be bringing open checkbooks to help shore up Europe’s shakiest economies.

While China has offered moral support and promised to help in global efforts to back the euro zone, Mr.Wen has not made specific promises to invest in a European bailout fund or in bonds from the hardest-hit countries.

Instead, the Chinese seem to be going for German bonds, or bunds, helping to drive Berlin’s borrowing costs to record lows, despite the mounting cost of rescuing its euro zone partners.

“It can be summarized as helping Germany to help the euro zone,” Jonathan Holslag, a researcher at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies, said in a telephone interview from Washington, where he testified Thursday before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

China’s leaders, Mr.Brown said, “don’t understand the logic of putting hard-earned Chinese money into supporting the social welfare system of Europe.”

But Chinese investment in European business is growing. And while much of the effort remains focused on setting up trading companies, Chinese companies have started to shop for industrial technology and brands that can help them become more competitive, at home and globally.

In 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, Chinese direct investment in the 27 European Union countries totaled 900 million euros, or about $1.2 billion at the current exchange rate.

That was only a fraction of the 28.5 billion euros ($38 billion) of American direct investment in Europe. But it was three times China’s level of only a year earlier — while the United States figure was shrinking.

“China is catching up quickly, especially during the current financial crisis,” Zhang Haiyan, director of the Euro-China Center at the Antwerp Management School, wrote in the “Euro-China Investment Report 2011-2012.”

The Chinese investment has been concentrated in a handful of countries: Luxembourg, mainly because of its reputation as an international financial hub, followed by Russia, Germany, Sweden and Britain.

Sweden, where the Zhejiang Geely Holding Group bought Volvofrom the Ford Motor Company in 2010 for $1.8 billion, is on Mr.Wen’s itinerary this week.

Mr.Li will be stopping in Russia. There, as in other parts of Eastern Europe, “Chinese companies know how to fill the empty place in the market that used to be filled by the government,” especially in consumer goods, Mr.Zhang said in an interview.

But China seems particularly intent on Germany. Chinese companies were the No. 1 investor in Germany last year, with 158 projects, or almost 20 percent of the total, according to Germany Trade and Invest, the government’s economic development agency.

It was the first time China had surpassed the United States by that measure.

Just last week, the Xuzhou Construction Machinery Group announced it would buy a majority stake in the German machinery maker Schwing, whose concrete pumps are being used to build the new European Central Bank tower in Frankfurt, as well as 1 World Trade Center in New York. The price was not disclosed.

But a rival of Schwing’s, Putzmeister, was sold to the Chinese company Sany Heavy Industry in January for 360 million euros, now worth about $480 million.

The same month, the Chinese energy company LDK Solar bought the German group Sunways for about 24 million euros ($32 million).

In March, another German company, Kiekert, the world’s biggest supplier of car door latches, was bought by a Chinese competitor, Hebei Lingyun, for an undisclosed price.

“It’s certainly true that German companies have most of the goodies and know-how that the Chinese are looking for,” Mr.Holslag said.

Such companies are hardly household names.

But they are part of the country’s Mittelstand, the roughly 3.7 million small- and medium-size companies, many family-owned, that are the backbone of the German economy and export engine.

Some have had cash flow troubles made worse by the global financial crisis.

And their privately held structure makes them attractive to Chinese buyers, who can deal directly with family owners rather than corporate boards and shareholders.

Mr. Holslag said he expected to see German policy tilt more in favor of protecting the Mittelstand’s interests, rather than promoting industrial giants like Siemens and Volkswagen, out of concern that the rapid expansion in China by the big conglomerates might lead to overcapacity and job cuts at home.

“This is certainly an evolution to watch,” Mr.Holslag said.

The bulk of China’s outward investment is still aimed at securing natural resources, largely in the Southern Hemisphere.

And Mr.Brown noted that the total level of investment was still relatively small, despite China’s having the world’s second-largest economy.

“The idea that the Chinese are coming to ‘buy Europe,’ it’s really overblown,” he said.

“That such a massive economy has so little prominence, it’s really a mystery.” Mr.Wen began his tour Friday in Iceland, which Chinese officials last week pointed out is the first Western European country to grant China market economy status.

The European Union and the United States have yet to do so, largely because of concerns about subsidies that China gives its exporters.

Such a designation would make it much harder for Western companies to win trade disputes in which they accuse China of dumping goods below cost.

European Union officials say the market economy talks with China have been moving at a glacial pace, and the political transition in Beijing may slow it further.

Mr.Li will meet in Brussels on May 3 with the presidents of the European Council and the European Commission, with talks mainly focusing on energy and urbanization instead.

European Union officials said that also reflected a widening of the agenda from traditional foreign policy and trade issues.

The issues being discussed may end up being overshadowed, however, by the scandal in China surrounding Mr.Bo and his wife, Gu Kailai, who is under investigation in the killing of a British businessman.

A prolonged split in the party leadership would be problematic not only for China, Mr.Brown warned, but also for the global economy, and could stymie progress in efforts to gain greater access to China’s vast domestic market as well.

“We cannot waste all that effort because of a bunch of squabbling politicians,” Mr.Brown said.

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