Saturday, October 13, 2007

China's outflow picks up pace

BILL SMITH and PETER JANSSEN

For more than a decade, China _ with its 1.3 billion consumers and legions of industrious, low-paid workers _ has been Asia's biggest magnet for foreign direct investment (FDI) from around the globe.

Less noticed, until recently, has been China's effort to become a foreign-investor nation in its own right, a development yet in its infant stage by global standards.

China's outward FDI is still relatively small, said a report published by three North American universities in August, which found that China's total was 5% of US investment in 2005, only 0.6% of the global amount.

But the study also noted that the pace of investment has been picking up, climbing to US$16 billion in 2006, or nearly 30% more than the previous year. That is starting to show in the FDI statistics in neighbouring Asian countries.

In Thailand, Chinese firms applied for approval of projects totalling 15.5 billion baht ($450 million) between Oct 6, 2006 and July 7 of this year.

In Laos, for the fiscal year ending on Sept 30, Chinese companies accounted for nearly half of the $1.1 billion of FDI projects approved, about 32% of it in hydroelectric power.

Much of China's push abroad has been motivated by the country's need for energy and raw materials to fuel its relentless growth.

That thirst has taken Chinese companies to mineral-rich Perth, Australia, where the state economy is growing at triple the national average due to Chinese trade and investment, giving birth to a new generation of Perth millionaires.

The quest for energy has also taken Chinese state investors to countries with less-savoury governments such as Sudan, Iran and Burma.

The recent international furore over the Burma junta's latest crackdown on its citizens has highlighted the political dimension of China's investment spree.

China is a significant investor in Burma and one of its main trading partners. It is also key to the ruling military regime's financial survival.

Chinese companies are studying plans to invest billions of dollars in a pipeline from Sittwe, in western Burma, to Yunnan province in China, to deliver natural gas from the Shwe gas field.

The huge field has the potential to generate about $12 billion to $15 billion for Burma's generals if it can be piped to market.

That could be enough to keep them in power for another decade or two.

China is also a major potential investor in hydroelectric power in both Burma and Laos.

China's Sinohydro Corporation has set up a joint venture with Thailand's MDX Corp to build a $1-billion dam at Hat Gyi on the Salween River in northeastern Burma.

The 1,200-megawatt project, expected to sell its output to Thailand, threatens the livelihoods of thousands of ethnic Karen in the area, who have been waging a guerrilla struggle against Burma's military for six decades.

Chinese companies have also invested in hydroelectric projects in neighbouring Laos, hoping to cash in on Thailand's need for energy.

Unlike the hunt for petroleum, the hydroelectric investments are export-oriented, and perhaps driven by employment considerations.

China has the biggest dam industry in the world, said Witoon Permpongsacharoen, editor of Watershed magazine. There are 80,000 large dams in China and they need to create jobs for this industry.

Given China's dismal record of disregarding the social and environmental impacts of its own dams, that is not necessarily a good omen for the people of Burma and Laos, although it will no doubt benefit their leaders.

China's political connections with those countries help them to secure the deals, but it means that more environmentally conscious companies are losing out.

What this country needs to do is attract some of the multinational companies that are forced to have high environmental and social standards by their shareholders, said forest engineer Peter Fogde, a Swedish director of the Burapha Group in Vientiane, Laos with interests in eucalyptus plantations for wood products.

''Coming from Sweden you have social-environment issues built into you when you are born,'' said Mr Fogde, who warned that huge tracts of land being given as concessions for rubber plantations to Chinese and Vietnamese investors will cause massive erosion of topsoil.

But not all Chinese investment is as environmentally or politically dangerous. Chinese investors are supplying cheap motorcycles to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, giving the dominant Japanese brands a run for their money.

A Chinese company has also announced plans to set up the first cement plant in Laos, giving the domestic construction industry a needed boost and lowering its costs.

And in Thailand, the Chinese projects approved this year include one to produce 5,000 tonnes of candles annually, and the Chinese-Thai Fusen Angell Motor company's plan to produce 55,000 electric cars.

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