BEIJING - China's Geely would barely lay a finger on Ford Motor Co's Volvo if it succeeds in acquiring the Swedish luxury car brand, the firm's top executive was quoted by state media as saying on Friday.

Volvo's current production, research and development facilities, union agreements and dealer networks will all be left intact, said Li Shufu, the founder and chairman of Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, the parent of Geely Auto.

If the deal succeeds, nothing will change for Volvo, except the boss turns to Li Shufu, Li told the official Xinhua news agency. Volvo and Geely will be two independently-managed brands.

Ford Motor Co said on Wednesday it was nearing an agreement to sell its Volvo unit to Geely, China's largest private automaker, in a deal that underscores China's arrival as a major force in the global auto industry.

The value of the deal, which Ford said it expects to sign in the first quarter and close in the second quarter of 2010, has been estimated at $1.8 billion -- far short of the $6.45 billion Ford paid for Volvo in 1999.

Li, 46, said that it had been more complicated to negotiate how to handle intellectual property rights than the deal's price.

He said the Volvo purchase would help Geely develop new energy vehicles, and that Geely would help Volvo reduce production costs and expand in the Chinese market.

The new energy-powered vehicle will be the future of the world's auto industry, Li said.

But based on current investment in research and development, China will be left far behind the pace of developed countries, he said in the English-language article.

China overtook the United States this year as the world's largest auto market, as sales soared after Beijing rolled out a series of incentives designed to stimulate consumer spending at the height of the global downturn.

However, there is still a significant technology gap between domestic Chinese automakers and their global rivals, which has led Chinese firms to look overseas for acquisitions of technology and designs as the global auto industry restructures.

Beijing Automotive Industry Holding, a domestic rival to Geely, said on Wednesday it will launch an aggressive campaign to develop its brand and move up the ladder after buying car designs from General Motors' GM.UL Saab unit.

(Reporting by Michael Wei and Simon Rabinovitch; Editing by Mike Nesbit)