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Tencent, China’s largest Internet company, is the focus of speculation that Snapchat is raising a round of funding that would value it at $3.5 billion. If Tencent does prove to be the big-money backer behind the surprise funding round, it would be further evidence of China’s largest Internet companies, led by Tencent, taking on an expansionist role by investing in US startups.

AllThingsD reported the rumor on Friday, claiming that the lead investor “might be a strategic party from Asia,” and suggesting that Tencent is a leading contender. Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel, has in the past praised Tencent and called it a “role model.”

A Snapchat investment, rumored to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, would be a milestone for Tencent, which with a $100 billion market cap hovers around the fringes of the world’s top five Internet companies, and its most obvious signal to date that it is deadly serious about establishing itself outside China. In June, Tencent took part in a $150 million funding round for online retailer Fab, which valued the company at north of $1 billion. In 2011, it acquired Riot Games for about $400 million, and last year it paid $330 million for a 40 percent stake in Epic Games.

Those deals come in addition to investments in smaller startups, such as Everyme, Ark, Sonalight, Loom, Watsi, Kamcord, Couple, and Waddle. Thanks to an active and growing presence in Silicon Valley, including the hire of Y Combinator alumnus Louis Fu as its manager of strategic investments, Tencent has been able to find its way into investment rounds of hot startups that can afford to be picky about whose money they take. Tencent offers the promise of access and connections in the world’s largest, and most difficult to crack, Internet market. In return, it gets partnerships with companies that might one day be big in the US and boast technologies relevant to its core areas, such as gaming and mobile chat.

At last week’s Global Mobile Internet Conference in San Francisco, Tencent president Martin Lau said that Tencent has spent close to $2 billion in investment outside of China. “In some cases, we provide access to the China market,” Lau said, explaining his company’s international strategy. “As a whole, we try to add value to those entrepreneurial companies. We try to empower them and benefit from their growth.”

Tencent isn’t the only Chinese Internet company placing bets in the US. Rival Alibaba, which is expect to soon file for an IPO, announced last week that it has established an investment arm in the US with a focus on ecommerce and emerging technologies. Alibaba has already announced three US invesments: sports merchandise etailer Fanatics, fast-shipping service ShopRunner, and mobile search specialist Quixey.

Alibaba’s US investment team, which is based in San Francisco, is headed by Michael Zeisser, who previously headed up digital media and Internet commerce for Liberty Media Corp. Credit Suisse banker Peter Stern, who advised Alibaba on its $7.6 billion stock buy-back from Yahoo, and Yale MBA graduate Danielle Wong, who’s now studying at Stanford, are also on the team.

Meanwhile, UC Web, the company behind China’s leading mobile browser, has said it will start making investments in US startups. CEO Yongfu Yu told me last week that the company has already made two investments outside of China, but he wouldn’t reveal which countries the investments were made in. UC Web recently earned the distinction of becoming to first Chinese Internet company to earn a market-leading position in two of the world’s major Internet markets, thanks to the popularity of its UC Browser in India, where it has overtaken Opera.

The moves by China’s leading Internet companies into the US show that they are no longer content with dominating their own enormous domains, and they are, like China itself, ready to expand their influence to foreign territories – even the very biggest. The US, aside from being a lucrative market full of consumers who have proven a willingness to pay for Internet products, remains the most prestigious one for Chinese entrepreneurs. It is the ultimate proving ground for an Internet industry that is finding its feet.

This trend has as much to do with the size, maturity, and stockpiles of cash held by Chinese Internet giants as it does with the rise of smartphones. In a mobile world, companies and apps go global immediately. That means there’s more pressure on everyone to think globally.

Tencent has been navigating the mobile transition better than many giants its size – Facebook in particular – as it is proving with its fast-growing WeChat messaging app. Just as Xiaomi has also shown with its iPhone-beating smartphones, China is showing that its Internet innovation can keep pace with the US. Now its companies are proving that they can also compete as big-dollar investors. As companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google remain blocked, or hobbled, in the Middle Kingdom, it is up to China to straddle the chasm between the two countries.

Even if the Snapchat deal doesn’t come through for Tencent, it is already proving that it can build some pretty damn big bridges.

[Image via Thinkstock]