Chinese Premier Li to meet business leaders in mineral-rich Western Australia

By Thomson Reuters Jun 17, 2024 | 8:30 PM

By Kirsty Needham and Renju Jose

SYDNEY (Reuters) -Chinese Premier Li Qiang will meet business leaders in Western Australia on Tuesday, and is expected to visit a lithium processing plant in the resource-rich state on the last day of his four-day visit to Australia.

Li, China’s top-ranked official after President Xi Jinping, will attend a business roundtable event in Perth along with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

Li’s visit is the first to Australia by a Chinese premier in seven years and marks a stabilisation in ties between the U.S. security ally and the world’s second-biggest economy.

Li is scheduled to visit a lithium hydroxide processing plant of Tianqi Lithium Energy Australia, which is 51% owned by Shenzhen-and Hong Kong-listed Tianqi Lithium and 49% by Australian miner IGO.

Western Australia supplies more than half of the world’s seaborne iron ore, with China among its top customers, and half of its lithium.

Li’s visit raises the issue of whether Australia will continue to accept high levels of Chinese investment in its critical minerals sector, as Western security allies push to reduce reliance on Beijing for the rare earths vital to electric vehicles. Australia last month blocked several Chinese investors from increasing stakes in a rare earths miner on national interest grounds.

Li said on Monday that China hopes Australia will provide “a fair, just and non-discriminatory business environment for Chinese enterprises”.

In an opinion article in The West Australian newspaper on Tuesday, Albanese said his government wants to use Australia’s critical minerals and rare earths to create more jobs in processing, refining and manufacturing, and sell to a broader range of markets.

“This commitment to revitalising local manufacturing doesn’t mean cutting trade ties or pulling up the economic drawbridge, this is about moving Australia up the international value chain,” he wrote.

Australia has encouraged its farmers and producers to diversify export markets beyond its largest trading partner after China imposed blocks on $20 billion in Australian exports in 2020 in a political dispute that has now largely eased.

Three-quarters of Australia’s exports to China come from Western Australia, Albanese noted.

“Just as we want to build Australia’s economic resilience by deepening and diversifying our trade relationships, we’re also taking action to ensure foreign investment continues to serve our national interest,” he wrote.

Albanese told ABC Radio on Tuesday that Australian officials had expressed concern to China’s embassy over an incident where an Australian journalist was blocked by Chinese officials during a signing ceremony for Li at parliament house.

Sky News Australia presenter Cheng Lei, who was jailed for three years in Beijing on national security charges until her release in October, was among media covering the meeting on Monday but was blocked from camera view by two Chinese officials who stood in front of her.

Cheng has said it was likely the Chinese officials didn’t want her to appear on domestic Chinese news coverage. She was a high-profile business news anchor for a Chinese state news channel before her arrest, which coincided with deteriorating ties between Australia and China.

The incident dominated Australian media coverage of Li’s Canberra meeting.

“When you look at the footage it was a pretty clumsy attempt,” Albanese told the ABC, adding Australian officials had intervened.

“There should be no impediments to Australian journalists going about their job. And we’ve made that clear to the Chinese Embassy,” he added.

China’s embassy did not respond to a Reuters request for comment on the incident.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham and Renju Jose in Sydney; Editing by Stephen Coates)