Coalminer puts a pin in Gillard's China win
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has been afforded little time to bask in her recent diplomatic triumphs in China, with a Chinese state-owned enterprise expressing its concerns directly to her over Australia's regulatory environment.
Speaking at the ADC Future Summit on Monday night, Ms Gillard was keen to hail the successful signing of several agreements on her visit to China earlier this month, including a strategic dialogue that she described as a landmark for bilateral relations.
However, in a polite but firm speech shortly after Ms Gillard's address, Liu Xiang, the chairman of coal miner Shenhua Australia, showed the Prime Minister's foreign policy wins had yet to dislodge long-held concerns of Chinese investors in Australia.
Shenhua Group is the largest coal producer in the world and has a market capitalisation of almost $65 billion.
Mr Liu said the regulatory framework, particularly around environmental approvals, had shifted from beneath him since his company first invested in the Watermark coal project near Gunnedah five years ago.
"From our own perspective, the regulatory environment is different today than it was when Shenhua first invested in the Watermark project in 2008," he said.
The main concerns among Chinese investors have been the introduction of the mining and carbon taxes, and their perception that Chinese investors are discriminated against by the Foreign Investment Review Board.
There are reports Chinese negotiators are asking for transactions worth less than $1 billion to be made exempt from the board's scrutiny, in order for stalled free trade agreement talks to progress.
Urging policymakers to "eschew the simplistic policy choices of the past" and instead establish measures that would help Chinese investment flourish in Australia, Mr Liu made repeated references to the importance of a stable and predictable regulatory framework.
"At a macro level, the investment environment in Australia remains attractive," he said.
"However a degree of caution still needs to be exercised by policymakers so that unexpected changes in legislation and regulation do not impact investor sentiment about this market."
Shenhua has invested more than $600 million in mining exploration and acquiring properties as part of the Watermark project. It plans to spend a further $1 billion to develop the mine to produce 10 million tonnes of coal a year to feed its power stations back in China.
"Making such a large capital investment is never without risk," Mr Liu said.
"Some of these risks can be mitigated with the careful planning and appropriate financial diligence. The risk of unforeseen and unexpected legislation and regulation, however, is something far more difficult to plan for and mitigate."
Shenhua's main concern surrounds its Watermark project, which is in the early stages of approval processes at the federal and state level.
It has been met with some environmental opposition. With an against-the-odds victory against Rio Tinto by the small Hunter Valley town of Bulga last week encouraging rural communities to challenge new developments, Shenhua's worst fears are that its 3000-page environmental impact assessment dossier could be in vain.
Earlier this month, Shenhua signed an agreement with Hydro Tasmania to invest $1.6 billion in Australian wind farms by the end of the decade.