Australia’s trade minister pressed China yesterday for more details about the detention of a Rio Tinto executive, but said he did not expect the case to affect bilateral trade ties.
Stern Hu (胡士泰), an Australian national, and three Chinese employees of Rio Tinto’s iron ore department were detained last week, on what China said was suspicion of stealing state secrets.
Simon Crean told reporters he had expressed “strong concern” to the Shanghai city government regarding Hu, and that Australia hoped the issue would be dealt with quickly.
“We’ve stressed the importance of getting further and better details,” the minister said, speaking on the rooftop of a restaurant on Shanghai’s historic Bund waterfront.
“We have no information as to what the investigation does involve. We’re going on the basis of press reports,” he said.
“The government here is not able to inform us anymore,” he said.
“We respect the Chinese legal system and the processes that need to be gone through, but we’ve indicated that this too is an important issue back home in Australia.”
Australian consular officials visited Hu at the Shanghai detention center where he was being held on Friday. Crean said Hu had appeared well.
“Obviously if charges are laid ... clearly we’re also pressing for availability of legal representation as well,” he said.
The detentions came just after Chinese steel mills, led by the China Iron and Steel Association (中國鋼鐵工業協會), failed to reach an agreement on iron ore prices for this year with Rio and rival miners BHP Billiton and Vale by a June 30 deadline.
The shock detentions appear to have left the price talks in limbo and cast a shadow on relations between Beijing and Canberra, whose economies have been welded together in recent years by China’s huge demand for metals and minerals.
Crean downplayed the potential economic impact of the case. “I see no reason why our trade relationships will be damaged, if what we can get is an expedition of the process in accordance with Chinese law,” he said.
“We believe that both economies, Australia and China, need each other,” he said. “But we should always do it within the law. The government will do it that way and I’ve a strong message to every commercial interest that they too need to do it that way.”