German minister ups rhetoric against takeovers ahead of China trip
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German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel gives a speech at the Day of German Industry 2016 conference in Berlin, Germany, October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
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By Michael Nienaber
BERLIN (Reuters) - China is strategically buying up key technologies in Germany while protecting its own companies against foreign takeovers with "discriminatory requirements", German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said on Saturday.
Gabriel, also vice chancellor and leader of Germany's Social Democrats, heads to China next week after having ratcheted up tensions with Beijing by putting the brakes on the latest Chinese takeovers of German technology companies.
In a guest column for Die Welt newspaper, Gabriel urged the European Union to ensure a level playing field and adopt a tougher approach with China.
"Nobody can expect Europe to accept such foul play of trade partners," Gabriel wrote, adding that Germany was one of the most open economies for foreign direct investments.
In China, on the contrary, foreign direct investments by European companies are being hampered and takeovers are only approved under discriminatory requirements, he said.
"But China itself is going on a shopping tour here with a long list of interesting companies - with the clear intention of acquiring strategically important key technologies."
Under German law, the government can block takeovers only if they jeopardize energy security, defense or financial stability.
Gabriel is pushing for a Europe-wide safeguard clause which could stop foreign takeovers of firms whose technology is deemed strategic for the future economic success of the region.
WARNING ON WTO STATUS
The minister said China would not be granted the important status as a market economy under the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO) if it did not change course.
"If China wants to get the market economy status, then it also has to act accordingly," Gabriel told Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung in an interview.
The EU is debating whether to grant China "market economy status" from December, which Beijing says is its right 15 years after joining the WTO.
Market economy status would make it harder for Europe to impose anti-dumping duties on Chinese goods sold at knock-down prices because it would change the method for determining a fair price.
Despite her deputy's tough words, Chancellor Angela Merkel views China as a strategically important partner, not only to do business with but also in foreign policy. It remains one of Germany's most important trading partners and 60 business executives will join Gabriel on his five-day trip.
This year to date, Chinese investors have racked up 47 deals to buy German targets with a total volume of 10.3 billion euros ($11.3 billion), according to Thomson Reuters data, compared with 29 deals worth 263 million euros in the whole of 2015.
Deputy Economy Minister Michael Machnig told the Financial Times that Berlin was worried about takeovers that seemed to be driven by the Chinese government or were about gaining access to German technology.
"We need to have the powers to really investigate deals when it is clear that they are driven by industrial policy or to enable technology transfers," he said. "When necessary, in exceptional cases, maybe even to say we're not going to allow (them)."
Gabriel's visit comes a week after his ministry withdrew approval for Fujian Grand Chip Investment Fund (FGC) to buy chip equipment maker Aixtron, citing security concerns.
The government is also scrutinizing the sale of Osram's general lighting lamps business Ledvance to a consortium of Chinese buyers.
Gabriel has struck increasingly protectionist tones since Chinese home appliance maker Midea made overtures back in May for robot-maker Kuka - a national champion in Germany's push to hook up machinery to the Internet.
(Reporting by Michael Nienaber; Editing by Alison Williams and Stephen Powell)
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