China-Australia Critical Mineral Tensions in Spotlight as Li Qiang Visits Perth

(Bloomberg) -- The gulf between Beijing and Canberra over Chinese investment in Australia’s critical minerals industry took center-stage on the final day of Premier Li Qiang’s visit, when he joined Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in the western mining capital of Perth.

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Australia is the world’s largest producer of lithium and has vast holdings of critical minerals and metals that are key to the green energy transition, including copper and rare earths. However, Canberra has recently been working with Washington to diversify global supply chains of such materials.

One of Li’s first stops on Tuesday was a visit to Tianqi Lithium Energy Australia’s plant at Kwinana, a joint venture by China’s Tianqi Lithium Corp. and an example of the type of cooperation Beijing would like to encourage. Later on Tuesday, Li and Albanese met with Chinese and Australian chief executives, including business leaders from Fortescue, Rio Tinto, BHP, the China Development Bank and the Bank of China.

In a meeting with Albanese on Monday, Premier Li said he hoped Australia could provide a “fair and non-discriminatory” business environment for his nation’s firms, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

Australia has been reluctant to allow greater investment by China in the critical minerals sector, frustrating Beijing. Earlier this month, Treasurer Jim Chalmers ordered a China-linked investor to divest its stake in a rare earths miner.

A polarizing security environment in the Indo-Pacific between Beijing and Washington has driven countries like Australia to try to diversify away from China. Australia is a key, long-standing ally of the US. Beijing has only recently lifted most of its restrictions on some Australian exports that were imposed when relations hit rock-bottom in 2020.

Frank Ha, chief executive of Tianqi Lithium Corp., said his firm expects a level playing field when it comes to foreign investment decisions on critical minerals, according to an interview published in the Australian Financial Review on Monday.

Li’s visit to Perth caps off a four-day tour by the premier to Australia, the first visit by a Chinese leader of his seniority in more than seven years. Following a meeting between Albanese and Li on Monday in Canberra, the two governments signed pacts to advance cooperation on education, climate change and cultural exchanges, and the Chinese government said it would add Australia to its visa waiver program.

In addition, Albanese said the two sides agreed to boost communication between their respective militaries to avoid future potentially dangerous stand-offs across the Indo-Pacific.

--With assistance from Phila Siu and Paul-Alain Hunt.

(Updates with quotes from Li and Albanese)

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