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China companies face political roadblocks to overseas acquisitions

Chinese companies' days of treating global assets like an all-you-can-eat buffett may be over.

The mainland has been gobbling up assets off its shores in the last few years as companies sought growth overseas with the world's second largest economy slowing amid a transition away from manufacturing. The buying binge saw Chinese companies pump $111.6 billion into overseas acquisitions this year alone, surpassing the full-year of $111.5 billion worth of deals in 2015, Reuters data showed.

But other countries have turned cautious and are throwing up political and economic curbs on China's forays.

Thomas Byrne, president of the Korea Society and a former sovereign risk manager for Asia Pacific at Moody's, said the concerns stem from Chinese government involvement.

"Most Chinese investment originates from state-owned companies, and these are facing the most scrutiny out of concerns over the Chinese government's influence on Chinese firms operating in foreign markets. Even private companies are held in suspicion because of murky ownership structure and indirect ties to the government," said Byrne.

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Last month, Britain's government launched a fresh review of the controversial Hinkley Point nuclear project, amid concerns about one of the deal's partners, state-owned China General Nuclear Power. That's strained the two countries' relations, spurring talk that the "golden age" of China-U.K. ties may already be over barely a year after Chinese president Xi Jinping paid a high profile state visit to the country.

British prime minister Theresa May wrote recently to Xi saying she wanted to enhance trade and cooperation and confirmed plans to soon visit China, moves that highlight the conundrum faced by governments in balancing national and commercial interests when engaging the East Asian giant.

The U.K. hasn't been alone in pushing back against China's acquisitiveness.

Last week, Australia blocked the A$10 billion ($7.7 billion) sale of Ausgrid to government-owned State Grid Corp of China and Hong Kong's Cheung Kong Infrastructure Holdings, citing national security issues.

"The South China Sea disputes, the increased recognition that the Chinese regime is more authoritarian than we originally thought and the fact we are dealing with a state-owned enterprise; those three things have suspended people's free-market instincts," a senior member of Australia's ruling Coalition told Reuters.

With more billion-dollar deals possibly on the horizon, observers said deals involving strategic sectors such as energy, power and infrastructure deals will be closely scrutinized.

But China doesn't appear to find much validity in the concerns.

State-run Xinhua news agency was indignant, calling the U.K. and Australian moves "China-phobia."

"To suggest that China would try to kidnap the countries' electricity network for ulterior motive is absurd and almost comical, since it is widely recognized in the world that business reputation is critical to any corporate activity," Xinhua writer Luo Jun said in an opinion piece.

"It's also ridiculous to suggest that Chinese enterprises would risk their credit and commit suicide on the world stage by threatening to deny the Australian and British public electricity," Luo added.

But while political considerations may oppose China's business deals, the private sector may be less concerned.

"Business people will still be finding ways to make money," said Chong Ja Ian, a political science professor at National University of Singapore.

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