Europe looks to China for Possible Bailout help

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao talked Thursday by phone and pledged to cooperate to revive global growth but there was no word on whether Beijing might contribute to Europe’s bailout fund.

The fund’s chief executive is due to visit Beijing on Friday to talk to potential investors. Beijing has expressed sympathy for the 27-nation European Union, its biggest trading partner, but has yet to commit any cash.

Joining in a bailout could help Beijing in its campaign to join the top ranks of governments that manage the global economy — a leadership role that many around the world have been urging China to take.

So far, Beijing has promised to help only by continuing business as usual, trading with Europe and stockpiling some of China’s multibillion-dollar trade surpluses in the safest European government bonds.

“For China, this could be a very big break in its efforts to take the seat at the head of the table in the international monetary hierarchy,” said Carl Weinberg of High Frequency Economics in a report.

Still, getting directly involved would put Chinese leaders in a position that is fraught with political risk — spending public funds to bail out European countries that despite their debt crisis are still far richer than China per person.

Managers of China’s sovereign wealth fund, a potential investor, have tried to maintain an image as careful financial guardians after they faced criticism when early investments abroad failed to perform well.

During a visit to Paris this month, the Chinese fund’s chairman said Europeans should “respect yourself” and stop “expecting charity from China.”

European leaders are looking for investors outside the 17 nations that use the euro common currency, including sovereign wealth funds, for a fund to backstop the main bailout fund, the European Financial Stability Facility.

That is part of a complex plan under development to have the EFSF act as an insurer for bonds issued by weaker governments such as Italy and Spain, making them more attractive to investors.

The head of the EFSF, Klaus Regling, is due to explain the insurance scheme during his visit Friday to Beijing.

Even if China contributes, Beijing needs to limit its risk, said Huang Wei, an economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank. She said that could mean the best Europe could hope for is a Chinese purchase of bonds guaranteed by the region’s stronger governments.

“I don’t think the Chinese government will invest directly in sovereign debt, such as Greek debt, because that’s very dangerous,” she said.

Still, China’s robust economy and $3.2 trillion in foreign reserves have fueled hopes in weaker economies that Beijing might emerge as a last-minute alternative to European aid and austerity measures that have fueled protests.

“You will hear some less-serious people in Ireland or Greece say, We don’t need you Europeans with your conditions because the Chinese will bail us out,” said Katinka Barysch, an analyst at the Centre for European Reform, a think tank in London.

But the vast scale of Europe’s needs — as much as 1 to 2 trillion euros for the bailout fund — makes that unrealistic, Barysch said.

“This is just not something the Chinese will give them,” she said.

Asked on Thursday whether China would contribute to a bailout fund, foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Beijing welcomed European leaders’ agreement to shore up banks and reduce Greece’s debts. But she gave no indication whether China would contribute.

“China is ready to work with the international community to promote stability in the international financial market and world economic recovery and growth,” Jiang said.

Some Europeans are looking to Chinese companies, still financially strong after the 2008 global crisis battered Western business, as potential buyers of public assets such as power companies that might be sold to raise money.

But Chinese buyers that picked up European companies and other assets earlier at fire-sale prices have run into trouble managing them. They have shifted to pricier but more reliable blue-chip acquisitions such as China National BlueStar Corp.’s purchase this year of Norway’s Elkem, a maker of silicon and carbon parts, for a hefty $2 billion.

Chinese help also might carry a political cost, which has sparked unease for some in Europe.

Last month, Wen Jiabao repeated Beijing’s long-standing appeal to Europe to grant it market economy status — a move that would make it harder for European companies to press trade complaints against Chinese rivals — though he refrained from linking it directly to possible Chinese help in the debt crisis.

The top EU economic official, Olli Rehn, has distanced himself from a proposal floated by Brazil for China and other developing countries to jointly contribute.

“That would however have very far-reaching political consequences,” Rehn said in an Oct. 21 interview with Handelsblatt, a German business newspaper.

“It would mean that the Chinese, the Russians and Brazilians would indirectly have a place at the table in the eurozone,” Rehn said. “Such a decision would have strategic significance that is not to be underestimated.”

But France’s defense minister, Gerard Longuet, on Thursday welcomed a Chinese role in Europe’s crisis, saying on French radio, “They have money, we need it.”

Buying European bonds “is a good deal for the Chinese, (and) it’s not a bad deal for us,” said Longuet, also a senator and a former industry minister.

“The Chinese are buying dollars. Now they want to buy euros,” he said. “That means they have more confidence in the future of Europe and its currency than in the future of the United States.”

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