Australia has demanded consular access to a
senior Rio Tinto mining executive being held in China on suspicion of espionage.
China has confirmed four Rio Tinto workers are charged with stealing state
secrets. The arrests come amid tough price negotiations between the
Anglo-Australian resources company and Beijing, as well as failed bid by the
Chinese for a multibillion dollar stake in Rio Tinto.
Stern Hu was detained Sunday by officials from China's Ministry of State
Security. The three other Rio Tinto employees arrested are reported to be
Conservative politicians in Australia believe the
arrests could be linked to China's anger at its failure to secure an 18 percent
stake in Rio Tinto, as well as Beijing's frustrations about protracted talks
with the giant Australian mining company on the price of iron ore, a key
component in the making of steel.
China has demanded sweeping price cuts,
which have been rejected by Australia's resources sector.
Rio Tinto, the
world's third-largest mining company, is leading negotiations for global iron
ore suppliers in price talks with Chinese mills. The two sides failed to reach
an agreement by a June 30th deadline.
Investors are worried that
allegations of industrial spying could damage lucrative ties between Australia
and its biggest trading partner. A previous period of sustained economic growth
in Australia was fueled by China's seeming insatiable appetite for its
The suggestion that Hu's detention is linked to sensitive
commercial issues has been dismissed by the Australian
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith says Australian diplomats must
be allowed to visit him.
"We want access to him to satisfy ourselves
as to his welfare; satisfy ourselves as to his well-being. In terms of the
stated reason for his detention - espionage and stealing of state secrets - as I
say, that very much surprised us," he said.
Hu is one of four
Rio Tinto employees arrested in China. It is reported the three other detainees
are Chinese citizens.
In a statement, Rio says it has been unable to
contact any of its workers held in China. The company is seeking clarification
from Beijing about the case and insists it will "cooperate fully with any
investigation the Chinese authorities may wish to undertake."
laws on industrial espionage give authorities wide powers when deciding how to
prosecute. The government in Beijing treats an array of economic and other data
as state secrets.
In 2002, a Chinese-born American, Fong Fuming, was
jailed for paying bribes to help investors obtain secret information to bid on
energy projects. Fong was sentenced to five years in prison but deported from
China after spending three years in custody.