Mon, Dec 22, 2003 - Page 10 News List

Corporate China's moves abroad give observers pause

REUTERS , BEIJING

A Chinese chemicals firm bids for a troubled South Korean car manufacturer. A Chinese television maker teams up with a European electronics giant. A Chinese phone company buys a bankrupt US network.

Corporate China is on a move abroad, a long march to capture foreign markets and resources as part of Beijing's "Go Forth" policy to get firms on the globalization bandwagon.

The moves signal that China's maturing corporate sector is growing increasingly confident.

Yet analysts warn that bad management and lack of marketing and branding chops mean many such deals could be duds.

"Most globalization strategies I've seen are misconceived because they are basically a CEO fantasy," said Arthur Kroeber, editor of the China Economic Quarterly.

"I have a high degree of scepticism about that [policy] because it's not being driven by a correct understanding of how they can be most competitive."

Last week, chemicals conglomerate China National Blue Star raised eyebrows when it was named as top bidder for a US$620 million controlling stake in South Korean sport utility maker Ssangyong Motor.

The move by Blue Star, which also runs a chain of noodle shops, left some analysts scratching their heads.

"I have no idea what they are up to. It just doesn't make sense. They would have no cost advantage if they manufactured vehicles in Korea," said Lin Wenjun, an auto analyst with Capital International Holdings in Shanghai.

But China may not be after factories and assembly lines as much as foreign know-how and style.

"Clearly, the process of globalization is viewed as a way of exposing Chinese companies to competition and efficiency and corporate governance," said Spencer White, equities analyst with Merrill Lynch in Hong Kong.

"You begin to see how other management models work and how other businesses work."

Take Chinese television maker TCL International.

TCL bought bankrupt German TV maker Schneider Electronics for 8.2 million euros last year and in November signed a deal with France's Thomson SA to combine their television and DVD businesses.

"It's not just plain manufacturing. It takes them into areas hitherto untrodden, like brand management," White said.

Some deals aim to give China a foothold in strategic sectors.

In November last year, China Netcom, the country's No. 2 fixed-line telephone company, bought bankrupt Asia Global Crossing and its cross-Pacific data network a year ago for US$120 million.

"That was a very specific strategic move, it's an Asia-based asset that essentially hooks into Netcom's existing fixed-line network," said Matthew Bersani, an attorney for law firm Shearman & Sterling who has helped Chinese companies list in the US.

That deal amounted to a high-tech version of another form of globalization China has stepped up recently -- securing resources like oil.

Earlier last week Petrochina, the country's top oil producer, said it may bid for new oil and gas exploration acreage in Indonesia. China National Offshore Oil has also bought Indonesian oil assets. Chinese firms are also eyeing gas and oil projects in Australia and Central Asia.

China has scrambled to buy oil and gas assets overseas as it seeks fuel for its booming economy and tries to reduce dependence on supplies from the volatile Middle East.

"They do this because they are big state-owned companies ... and they have the concept that they have to have physical control of resources," Kroeber said.

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