China shops for Latin American oil, food, minerals

June 5, 2011 - 10:59 AM

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Latin America is blessed with a wealth of natural resources such as oil, copper and soy, and seeks investment and loans to capitalize on them. China needs the commodities to keep its economy growing and has about $3 trillion in reserves to burn.

Those interests have come together in a burgeoning and unorthodox partnership, as China lends and invests tens of billions of dollars in countries around Latin America in return for a guaranteed flow of commodities, particularly oil.

Recent deals have made China a key financier to the governments of Venezuela and Argentina. At the same time, Chinese companies have secured a decade's worth of oil from Venezuela and Brazil, and steady supplies of wheat, soybeans and natural gas from Argentina.

China is breaking new ground by aggressively locking down commodities around Latin America through large loans, investments and other financial arrangements, said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York.

"I don't know of any other government which has done this sort of securing of rights for commodities and natural resources so systematically around the Third World as China, and they've used a whole host of new financial instruments to do this," Schell said.

"China's been very, very prolific in spreading its investments around Africa and Latin America, even though the terms aren't ideal."

Ernesto Fernandez Taboada, director of the Argentine-Chinese Chamber of Production, Industry and Commerce, said China is simply making sure it has the resources it needs to continue growing its economy, which, by some accounts, is projected to surpass the U.S.'s by 2020.

"For China, this is a strategic, long-term investment," Fernandez Taboada said. "They're thinking in the future, not just in the moment. These oil investments, for example, are for 15 to 20 years."

Some of the largest investments have gone to Brazil and Argentina, but China has extended even bigger loans to Venezuela, agreeing to provide more than $32 billion to President Hugo Chavez's government.

Venezuela will pay its debt in oil, and in increasing amounts of it during the next decade. The infusion of cash has swiftly made China Venezuela's biggest foreign lender, enabling Chavez to boost spending ahead of next year's presidential election.

"Viva China!" Chavez exclaimed during a televised meeting with business leaders from Beijing, thanking them for helping set up mobile phone factories and build railways and public housing in Venezuela. He gushed: "I'm in love with China."

The relationship is driven in part by Chavez's eagerness to form alliances that exclude the U.S. But it's also good business for Chinese companies: Venezuela says it has been exporting to China about 460,000 barrels a day, about 20 percent of its oil exports, according to official figures. It hopes to double that soon.

"Venezuela has what we need," said Chen Ping, political counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Caracas. "And we also have what they need, for example technology ... Therefore we can help each other mutually."

The loans are typically secured against revenues from oil sales to Chinese companies, purportedly at market prices, though there could be discounts in some cases, said Erica Downs, an expert at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. She wrote a March report on the China Development Bank's energy deals worldwide.

In many cases, financing is being channeled through the state-controlled China Development Bank, which has worked with Chinese companies to lock in commodity supplies.

Downs said such loans give Chinese state oil companies an edge by allowing them special access to local projects. In some cases, she said, such as in Venezuela and Argentina, the loans appear tied to hiring Chinese companies that carry out public works projects for the borrowing government.

China's financing has also been unique, she said, in that in recent years "virtually no other financial institutions were willing to lend such large amounts of capital for such long terms."

Countries such as Venezuela and Ecuador would otherwise have few options for obtaining such large lines of credit, in part due to their presidents' hostility toward traditional lenders such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Downs said.

The China Development Bank has become a convenient "lender of last resort," Downs said, and Venezuela's government, in fact, has become the bank's biggest foreign borrower.

In Ecuador, the Chinese oil company PetroChina agreed in 2009 to lend $1 billion to state company PetroEcuador in exchange for oil deliveries. The China Development Bank also agreed to lend $1 billion last year to Ecuador's government, to be repaid through oil shipments.

The Chinese stake appears set to grow exponentially.

Direct Chinese investments totaled more than $15 billion in Latin America and the Caribbean last year — 9 percent of the region's foreign direct investment, according to a May report by the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

The report said that while the U.S. is still Latin America's largest investment source, China has climbed to third place, behind the Netherlands.

In Argentina, Chinese companies have even replaced U.S. and British corporations in controlling lucrative natural gas and oil resources.

Last year, the state-owned Chinese oil company CNOOC entered into a 50-50 joint venture with Bridas Energy Holdings Ltd., a family owned Argentine company. The joint venture then bought out British company BP's shares in Argentina-based Pan American Energy, giving it 18 percent of Argentina's oil and natural gas production. This year, the venture also purchased U.S.-based Exxon Mobil Corp.'s interests in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, including a refinery and more than 700 service stations.

"Clearly, the U.S. remains the significant actor in Latin America and will remain so for the foreseeable future," said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a U.S.-based business group. "But China's a huge part of the scene now. It was commodities exports to China over the last five years that allowed Latin America to weather the economic turmoil."

One Chinese company not only locked in a long-term supply of commodities, but also set a more stable price for years to come and circumvented market rates, which have soared in part because of Chinese demand.

China and Chile created a $2 billion sales, finance and investment joint venture in 2005 that guaranteed China 836,250 metric tons of copper over 15 years, at rates partially fixed on what was then the market price of $2.07 a pound. Chile's state-owned Codelco mining company had to put up its entire 49 percent interest in the venture as collateral, and give China Minmetals Corp. an option to purchase 100 percent of one of the world's most promising copper mines.

Chileans criticized the deal as a threat to their patrimony as they became aware of its details and copper prices soared. Both sides backed off the Chinese purchase option in 2008 to fend off the criticism, but with copper now trading above $4 a pound, Chile's top client is still getting thousands of tons of copper at far below market prices.

China also controls 50 percent of Argentina's largest oil field, Cerro Dragon, and all the oil and gas reserves in the far southern Argentine province of Santa Cruz over the next 40 years, deals that became anti-government campaign issues in provincial elections.

During recent visits to Brazil, Schell said he has heard wariness from businesspeople about a system in which "Brazil sends their natural resources and China sends their flip-flops and consumer goods."

Rubens Barbosa, Brazilian ambassador to the U.S. from 1999 to 2004 and now a business consultant, said Brazilian officials have complained that cheap Chinese exports have destroyed domestic industries such as shoe and textile manufacturers. Brazil this year imposed antidumping tariffs on imports of some Chinese fibers within months of China becoming Brazil's biggest trading partner.

"With trade, we have a problem because the aggressiveness of Chinese companies is very strong," Barbosa said. "But the government still has a lot of interest in these relations with China. China is now the principal partner of Brazil."

China's commercial ties with Brazil continue to grow. About 14 percent of the South American country's oil production went to China in 2009, and that portion is expected to expand because Brazilian oil company Petrobras signed a 10-year deal with Chinese-owned Unipec Asia to export 150,000 barrels of oil a day in the first year. The deal calls for exports of 200,000 barrels a day for the next nine years. At the same time, Petrobras secured a $10 billion, 10-year loan from the China Development Bank.

Petrobras says the deals were separate and that the oil is not being used to pay back the loan. Still, the agreements ensure Chinese access to Brazil's booming oil production, which promises to skyrocket after vast offshore reserves discovered in 2008 come online.

China has also been active across Argentina. The China Development Bank has offered a $2.6 billion, 10-year loan to revive a freight train system connecting Buenos Aires to much of Argentina's central heartland. In the country's Rio Negro province, the Metallurgical Corporation of China has invested $80 million to reactivate an iron ore mine, and China's Beidahuang Group company has promised $1.4 billion in irrigation infrastructure in exchange for a 20-year contract to grow corn, wheat, soy and dairy on otherwise dry land for Chinese consumers.

And in remote southern Tierra del Fuego, near the tip of South America, Chinese companies are investing $1 billion, not only to produce fertilizer, but to build an energy plant, for which Argentina has promised China natural gas for 25 years.

"Two weeks ago, the Chinese commerce minister visited us with 60 business executives, and they showed great interest in investing in other sectors," Fernandez Taboada said. "There is a fundamental expansion of China in Latin America. In all the countries, from Mexico on south."

According to Schell, China is just getting started.

"This is a real tipping point moment, of which the Chinese investments in commodities and extractive resources of Latin America is just the opening bell," he said. "Who's got the money? And it's not the United States any longer. It's China. This is the next great pool of (foreign investment) that the world is going to reckon with in myriad ways."

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Associated Press writers Michael Warren in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Bradley Brooks in Sao Paulo, Jack Chang in Mexico City and Jorge Rueda in Caracas contributed to this report.

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James can be reached at: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap