MUNICH -- Back in the fall of 2010, Chinas prime minister, Wen Jiabao, must surely have enjoyed the state reception he got in Italy, when Romes Colosseum was flooded in red light and calligraphic messages wishing eternal friendship between the two countries. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi spared no expense, paying court to the rich uncle from Beijing. Berlusconi seemed to sense hed soon be needing something from his guest. That time is now upon us.
Facing huge debt, Italy has been conducting intensive negotiations for weeks with representatives of Chinese investment funds trying to get them to buy Italian government bonds and shares in leading Italian companies. Italy is carrying a national debt load of 1.9 trillion euros. Interest rates for the euro-zone member have gone up sharply over the past few weeks, and they may not be able to pay. To widespread criticism, the European Central Bank has been buying Italian bonds.
Now its up to China to decide. The country is sitting on forex reserves amounting to $3.2 trillion. Little wonder, then, that Wen Jiabao is a welcome guest in financially-strapped eurozone countries. "If Europe is having difficulties, we will extend a helping hand," he promised last June during another trip to Europe. If necessary, they would buy euro-zone country government bonds in appropriate quantities.
Such words are music to Greek, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese ears. The second largest economy in the world playing savior of the euro! The debt-plagued Europeans seem to be able to forget all too easily that China is a dictatorship. "Good friends are there to help when someone needs it," said Wen Jiabao at a meeting with his Greek counterpart George Papandreou. Such dulcet sounds are enough to move Athens to tears.
In Germany, and other relatively wealthy euro-zone countries, all this meets with a healthy dose of mistrust. If China is buying European government bonds, EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger noted recently, it is most certainly not out of charity: "China takes over the EU, and we Europeans sell our souls."
What's China's stake?
Nobody knows exactly how much money China has already invested in European government bonds. In Italy, the number is apparently 4% of total debt, which would amount to 76 billion euros. In Spain, Portugal and Greece, several billion more. However, as the latest worsening of the euro crisis shows, Chinas move did not influence financial markets.
But its enough for China to be seen as a potential savior in case of dire emergency. The apparent generosity of the new economic superpower is aimed at changing European perceptions and polishing up Chinas image. China needs to win the confidence of European trade partners because that will mean quicker acceptance of it as a market economy -- thus removing various constraints with regard to trade with the EU. The EU not the United States -- is Chinas most important trading partner.
But China has also been investing directly in European companies. The country is seeking to build down its reserves of dollars and transfer more capital to Europe. The People's Bank of China recently bought strongly into Munich Re. And in early August, Lenovo, the Chinese computer manufacturer, bought a majority holding in German consumer electronics company Medion.
Germany is officially Chinas most important European partner, but so far theyve held off with the really big investments out of fear of political pushback such as occurred in 2008 when Dresdner Bank was up for sale and an alleged offer from China unleashed a storm of political concern.
In the last five years, China has invested $218 billion worldwide according to estimates of the U.S.-based Heritage Foundation. Of that, 34.8 billion euros went to Europe, $28 billion to the United States, and $61 billion to Canada and South America.
China is spending a lot on infrastructure projects. In Greece, the Chinese logistics company Cosco controls the largest container terminal in the port of Piraeus for the next 35 years. In Iceland, a country that was also ravaged by the financial crisis, a Chinese investor bought up half of Stormur Seafood. China has also invested in the construction of a deep-water harbor in Iceland and the expansion of Keflavík International Airport. Such projects generate a lot of brownie points with local populations and give Wen Jiabao leverage to take pot shots at the Anglo-Saxon finance economy model.
"No to a speculation economy," he said recently on a state visit to Hungary, adding: "Our economy is based on work."
Read the original story in German
Photo - World Economic Forum