Fifteen years ago, when Japanese companies were busily buying up chunks of corporate America, I was one of those urging Americans not to panic. You might therefore expect me to offer similar soothing words now that the Chinese are doing the same thing. But the Chinese challenge – highlighted by the bids for Maytag and Unocal – looks a lot more serious than the Japanese challenge ever did.
……China, unlike Japan, really does seem to be emerging as America’s strategic rival and a competitor for scarce resources – which makes last week’s other big Chinese offer more than just a business proposition.
The China National Offshore Oil Corporation, a company that is 70 percent owned by the Chinese government, is seeking to acquire control of Unocal, an energy company with global reach. In particular, Unocal has a history – oddly ignored in much reporting on the Chinese offer – of doing business with problematic regimes in difficult places, including the Burmese junta and the Taliban. One indication of Unocal’s reach: Zalmay Khalilzad, who was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan for 18 months and was just confirmed as ambassador to Iraq, was a Unocal consultant.
Unocal sounds, in other words, like exactly the kind of company the Chinese government might want to control if it envisions a sort of “great game” in which major economic powers scramble for access to far-flung oil and natural gas reserves. (Buying a company is a lot cheaper, in lives and money, than invading an oil-producing country.) So the Unocal story gains extra resonance from the latest surge in oil prices.