China became one of the world's top three investors for the first time last year as its foreign investment soared to a new record, the government said Monday.

The Asian giant's overseas direct investment rose 17.6 percent last year from 2011 to $87.8 billion, according to a statement jointly released by the Ministry of Commerce, the National Bureau of Statistics and the State Administration of Foreign Exchange.

Globally, overseas direct investment fell 17 percent, with China's comparative rise making it one of the world's top three investors, the statement said without specifying which were the other two.

Last year's increase represented an acceleration from 8.5 percent in 2011, when the global economic recovery was weak in the face of continuing financial turmoil in Europe and the United States.

Beijing has been encouraging Chinese companies to "go international" as the country's economy steams ahead, with its appetite expanding for both resources and global market share.

In May 2012 China Three Gorges, operator of the world's biggest hydro-electric dam, closed a deal to buy a 21.35 percent stake in power generator Energias de Portugal for 2.7 billion euros ($3.56 billion).

In November, sovereign wealth fund China Investment Corp (CIC) acquired a 10 percent stake in Britain's Heathrow Airport for 450 million pounds ($704 million).

CIC was set up in 2007 with $200 billion to make better use of China's colossal foreign exchange reserves that now amount to nearly $3.5 trillion, and its total assets stood at $575.2 billion at the end of 2012.

The government aims to increase overseas direct investment at an average annual rate of 17 percent through 2015 to $150 billion.

By the end of 2012, China's total outstanding overseas direct investment stood at $531.9 billion, the 13th highest in the world, said the statement.

The figure was small compared with developed countries as "China's outbound direct investment took off rather late", the statement said, noting that US overseas investments were 10 times larger and Britain's more than three times the size.

"The sectors (China) has invested in are broad and comprehensive, although (the value) is rather concentrated in some industries," it said.

A total of $491.3 billion, or 92.4 percent of the total, was poured into only seven sectors including leasing and business services, finance and mining, it added.

The top destination for overseas Chinese investment last year was Hong Kong, while the US rose to second place with $4.05 billion invested, surging 123.5 percent from 2011.

By end of of 2012, Chinese companies employed 1.49 million staff overseas, about half foreign citizens, the report added.