China never loses its ability to surprise the rest of the world. Having scaled metaphorical mountains it reached new heights last month when Chinalco, a Chinese state mining company, bought Mount Toromocho in Peru in an investment worth £1.53 billion. The reason? The 4,600 metre-high mountain is composed almost entirely of copper, which will be turned into wire that will be used to carry out the electrification of the whole of China.
On reflection, though, the move is perhaps not so astonishing, given the country's vast cash reserves – the largest in the world – and its ability to put eye-popping amounts of money on the table, which are avidly accepted by developing countries.
And with a vast appetite for commodities, it is accumulating them throughout the world, notably investing in infrastructure in Africa – a point that was noted in May by Ivan Glasenberg, the CEO of multinational commodities and mining giant Glencore. "The Chinese are saying: 'we can get the infrastructure developed in Africa and that enables us to feed commodities into our country'," he said.
Meanwhile, back on home territory, the country is pursuing its 12th five-year plan which will propel it toward 2015 with a series of "supertrends" that include new manufacturing, sustainability and urbanisation. Admittedly, the national economy has slowed in recent months, with exports decelerating as global markets suffer and domestic growth declines, which has led to some of the weakest months since 2001 for growth and a cut in interest rates.
To put things firmly in perspective, though, a growth rate of 7.5%, even though down from the heady days of 9.5%, is still beyond the wildest dreams of most other nations. The US, by comparison, is growing by just 2.2% annually.
One senior venture capitalist based in Shanghai believes that some good might come out of the slight reversal in trends. "This means significant surplus capacity for Chinese manufacturers," he says. "Which might be a wake up call as economic pressure may force out producers of inferior quality goods and help the better ones to increase quality and productivity."
Robert Martin, who heads Scottish Development International's Greater China Region from its Shanghai office agrees that talk of slowdown in China is relative to the huge opportunities in the world's second largest economy.
"I would suggest the slowdown is slight," he says. "We get conflicting numbers from time to time but any country that can boast a growth rate of between 7-9% plus having substantial amounts of foreign reserves and the cash to do something positive to stimulate growth is a very strong story indeed."
And it is one that is attracting increasing numbers of Scottish companies to do business in the country, whether through a direct presence or using a partner or distributor. Martin, who has been in post since March this year reports a continued growth in interest.
"We look after companies from fundamental enquiries right through to actually helping them establish themselves here and to find distributors – and we have been seeing a year-on-year increase in that demand. Last year we helped more than 200 companies, the bulk of those in mainland China."
SDI has a presence in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The seat of government, Beijing is the base for many financial services and oil companies; Shanghai also has a large share of the financial sector plus creative industries and enabling technologies.
Enquiries, Martin says, are coming from across the spectrum of business. "We look after most of the key sectors and are strong in renewable energy with oil and gas coming to the fore as well, as are life sciences.
Food and drink from Scotland, especially at the top of the quality range, is an increasingly dynamic sector, with demand driven by a growing middle class which has aspirational tastes.
"We have an ongoing programme of inward missions and have just had a big food and drink event here in Shanghai, which was visited by Loch Fyne, the acclaimed shellfish and salmon producer, and actually flew fresh product in from Scotland," says Martin.
"We had a very successful event that allowed 65 of the Shanghai area's leading chefs and purchasing managers from hotels the chance to sample some of Scotland's unique and premium quality seafood."
He believes that this represents a significant investment for the future. "Scottish salmon has come from a standing start and the First Minister and Scottish Government have been excellent in working with the Chinese authorities to bring fresh salmon in." In 2011, £404m of salmon from the UK was exported globally, of which 5% went to China, equalling £20m.
The creative industries are also making inroads into the Chinese marketplace. The 10th China Joy, the international digital entertainment expo and conference, is taking place in Shanghai this month and five Scottish companies are scheduled to attend, including Reloaded Productions, makers of the online role-playing game APB Reloaded.
"Companies coming out here will be able to see games and what's being done on hand-held devices and smartphones," says Martin. "Smartphone usage in China is phenomenal and there are more internet users here on a daily basis than in the rest of the world combined."
Which is clearly an increasingly significant target for Scottish companies. The Scottish e-commerce study, conducted by economic consultants SQW was published last month and prompted Scottish Enterprise to promise to "increase focus on the e-commerce opportunity for Scotland and in particular, to focus on international e-commerce awareness, advice and support - the report also highlights the significant opportunity e-commerce presents for Scotland, and in particular for our exporting and international capability."
There are some 40 companies from Scotland operating in China including Aberdeen Asset Management, Highland Spring, and Sgurr Energy, while Chinese firms in Scotland include information and IT company Lenovo, the Bank of China and Ningxia Zhongyin Cashmere Company.
Despite the daunting scale of the marketplace and the temptation to think of China as a giant monolith, there are areas of opportunity on several levels and companies, Martin stresses, need not be on the scale of RBS or Aberdeen Asset Management to succeed there.
"There are opportunities in the first tier cities and there is an increasing knowledge and understanding of the second and third tier cities. The Chinese government in its five-year plan wants to ensure that while it will continue to create mega cities such as Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing it is also keen to have a geographic rebalancing as they might describe it and ensure that there are opportunities in the wider geography of China – so there will be investment in infrastructure and industry and development all over the country.
"In terms of what we do, a business does not have to be a huge organisation," he says.
"We're keen to encourage businesses at all levels and if they have a unique and innovative product then there are opportunities for them here. I would definitely encourage people to come into the market and not to worry about whether they are big enough. Research your market and we will help you."
Wilkie spinning out the business
When J&D Wilkie was founded in Kirriemuir in 1868, it was manufacturing jute from flax grown in the area, then the jute centre of Europe. Now a global textile company it manufactures air filtration products with applications in power stations where the airflow gets pumped through a filter, regulating the temperature and the atmosphere.
The firm is also known as a maker of ballistic and stab-resistant clothing, the type worn by staff at security firms.
J&D Wilkie first went to China in 2007 after one of its major customers in filtration asked it to supply the Chinese market.
Managing director Bob Low visited the country and decided that the company needed a presence in the country, which was headed up by Jian Liang He, an MBA student in Scotland and now managing director at Wilkie Technical Textiles (Jiaxing Ltd). The firm sent out two technicians and subsequently took equipment from Scotland.
Jiaxing is 40 minutes from Shanghai and most of Wilkie's main European customers have set up their China operations within a mile's radius.
These customers have clients in both Europe and China and this year J&D Wilkie installed a new yarn spinning plant there. Low describes the country as a big pool of skills with a young and mobile workforce.
The biggest challenge, he says, was underestimating the time that has to be spent in China, which he visits every three months or so.
There were other cultural challenges: "There is no credit facility and you must build trust." Local knowledge has been very valuable in dealing with bureaucracy and labour legislation.
SDI and Scottish Enterprise have been very helpful, he says, in setting up meetings and appointments with potential clients.
This year the company won a Queen's Award for Enterprise in International Trade, which coincided with its £0.5 million yarn spinning unit, which will help secure the raw materials required at Kirriemuir.