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Chinese Companies Continue Global Expansion in Resources Sector

  • Heda Bayron

Despite the global financial crisis, Chinese state-owned companies continue buying assets overseas, especially in the energy and resource industries. The trend is expected to continue into the next decade.

From Australia to Iraq, Chinese state companies are gobbling up fuel and commodities around the world. About 90 percent of Chinese overseas investments in the first half of the year went to the energy and basic materials sector. Last year, China mergers and acquisitions deals totaled nearly $24 billion.

Jing Ulrich is chairwoman of China equities and commodities at the investment bank JP Morgan.

"I think the Chinese government strategy is to gradually acquire more resource-based assets because China is a resource poor country but it is cash rich," she said. "To fuel China's future development, you need a lot of copper, a lot of iron ore, a lot of other metals, including gold. So I do believe that China is on a path to overseas acquisitions."

China is expected to increase its acquisitions in the mining and oil industries by 50 percent this year to take advantage of cheaper prices because of the financial crisis.

China has $2 trillion worth of foreign currency reserves. Andrew Lam, a partner at Grant Thornton, a financial advisory company in Hong Kong, says this year's massive economic stimulus spending program has added more ammunition to ambitious Chinese companies.

"Through the big banks, the government is pumping a lot of money into the economy. And this money is actually working its way into increased spending," he said.

China is the world's largest buyer of iron ore and the biggest consumer of steel. To encourage overseas investment, the government has streamlined the approval process, encouraged financing and allowed companies to retain foreign currency income.

The biggest deal so far this year is Sinopec's $7 billion acquisition in August of Addax Petroleum, which operates an oil field in Iraq's Kurdistan region.

Chinese state-owned companies have not been shy in courting the biggest companies in the world. But these attempts have revealed their limitations despite their deep pockets.

Chinalco's $19.5 billion offer for a stake in one of the world's largest miners, Rio Tinto, was rejected. And many in Australia, Rio Tinto's home country, say that led to the arrests of four Rio Tinto executives in Shanghai for alleged bribery and commercial espionage.

The Rio Tinto espionage case highlights the political complications arising from dealings with state-owned companies. David Li, economics professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, says Chinese companies are entering new terrain.

"China's demand for resources is through the purchases of our state-owned enterprises because many of the resource-using enterprises are state-owned enterprises. And these state-owned enterprises are in negotiations with companies with strong government support. So this is a new challenge," he said.

China has also been aggressive in pushing for changes in global commodity pricing. Earlier this year, China pressed the world's biggest iron ore suppliers to cut prices.

Li says China's hunger for resources has massive implications for the rest of the world, beyond mere business deals.

"China's demand for these resources potentially will also help resource rich countries like Mongolia and Nigeria, to upgrade their economic structure. We are able to reach a win-win solution not only for China, but also for resource rich countries and the rest of the world," he said.

Mongolia's mining minister, F. Zorgit, says such investments have the potential to radically change his country's future.

"To give you an example, one mining project can quadruple the country's GDP (gross domestic product). The country's budget revenue can depend on a single company so much that the politics and economic life can be changed by that company," said Zorgit.

In August, Mongolia's parliament passed a law opening up the mining sector to foreigners. The country is rich in copper, gold, uranium and coal - a fuel China needs.

Market experts say Chinese strategic acquisitions will continue over the next five to 10 years. Chinalco's chairman recently said Chinese companies face huge challenges in these overseas forays, but they are learning lessons every time.