The company’s push falls under a broader Chinese government initiative, dubbed “One Belt, One Road,” a giant plan to strengthen China’s investment, influence and trade links to the rest of the world. It’s meant to increase the country’s global clout, to help China shore up access to energy resources and to seek growth abroad as the domestic economy slows.
Both state-owned and private firms are applauding the initiative — a government-approved line of spending that could help companies circumvent tighter capital controls that have curbed overseas investment recently.
“We think this policy is very good — we have enjoyed the benefits of China opening up over time,” Dai said. “For Sinopec, this presents us favorable opportunities.”
Sinopec has the money for continued overseas investment — the company’s balance sheet remains robust with 135 billion yuan (about $19.56 billion) in cash, wrote Alliance Bernstein’s Neil Beveridge in a recent note. Last year, the firm sunk $1 billion to buy Chevron’s assets in south Africa.
China has been importing energy resources for decades to meet growing demand. As such, the government has long encouraged energy firms to acquire overseas assets.
“We are still quite poor in domestic resources … in Chongqing, we have discovered this new shale gas resource,” Dai said, adding that “it’s still not enough to meet our needs and we have to furnish resources from abroad.”
One of Sinopec’s largest foreign investments came in 2013, when it bought one-third of U.S. firm Apache’s Egypt business for around $3 billion. At the time, a coup had recently toppled the democratically elected president and sparked deadly protests.
Despite the unrest, Sinopec was quick to snap up a stake in Egypt’s “valuable” assets, Shao Jingyang, Sinopec’s general manager in Egypt, told CNBC. “We were very confident … and determined to make the decision.”
Critics of OBOR have said that Chinese companies don’t have the know-how to manage operations in areas where stability and security can pose a risk.
Sinopec, Dai said, recognizes the challenges and has worked to “teach and train our own people to adapt to different countries, cultures and languages.”
“Managing international expansion operations will create different interim issues,” he said. “You have to understand the situation where you are going, you have to adapt to the local environment, and you have to assess the risks of investing there.”
The country touts its Egypt venture as a success. Even as oil prices have fallen globally, Sinopec said it has maintained its momentum, producing 350,000 barrels of oil a day in Egypt, turning a profit of $620 million.
The firm has reinvested about $1 billion in Egypt over the last three years with an eye to long-term growth, and is currently in discussions to invest billions to help develop a petrochemical refinery complex south of the Suez Canal. “We see a bright future here,” Shao said. “We want to make full-spectrum cooperation with Egypt.”
But a big challenge is “past due receivables,” he said. Experts have continually highlighted risks if countries are unable to pay back China.
Shao suggested the issue could be eased if more transactions settled in Chinese renminbi, adding another possible currency to the pool to handle payments.
The Chinese government has been keen to globalize the renminbi — it’s acceptance last year into the International Monetary Fund’s special basket of currencies was a symbolic move in that direction.
In the long run, the “One Belt, One Road” initiative “could boost internationalization of the renminbi by encouraging its use in both trade and financial transactions,” wrote Tianjie He of Oxford Economics in a recent note.