China is accusing four Shanghai-based executives of Anglo-Australian mining company Rio Tinto of bribing Chinese steelmakers to obtain information during negotiations over global iron ore prices. They were all recently detained in China on spying charges. Australian officials have met with the four mining company employees.
Australia's Foreign Minister Stephen Smith says Australian staff have met with Rio Tinto employee Stern Hu, who, along with three others, has been detained in China.
"Australian consulate officials will conduct a consular visit on Mr. Stern Hu, who as you know has been detained on suspicion of espionage and stealing state secrets," said Smith.
Hu was born in China but is an Australian citizen. The other three are local Chinese citizens.
The China Securities Journal newspaper Friday cited a Chinese Ministry of State Security statement as saying Hu and the three other Rio Tinto employees tried to bribe Chinese steelmakers during tense iron ore price negotiations this year.
The paper said these actions seriously damaged China's economic security and interests, and violated Chinese law.
Hu was the Shanghai-based manager of Rio's Chinese iron ore business.
Rio Tinto is the world's third-largest mining company. It is acting as lead negotiator for global iron ore producers in price talks with Chinese steel mills. China is pushing for sharp price cuts following years of repeated increases.
The detentions come shortly after Rio Tinto turned down a multibillion dollar deal with Chinese state metals firm Chinalco.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters in Beijing Thursday that the two cases are not related.
Qin said the detention of Stern Hu is an independent judiciary case. He said Chinese authorities had collected "sufficient evidence" that Hu and the others had stolen state secrets, before they took any action.
He also said it is not proper to exaggerate this case or, in his words, "politicize it," saying this would not be good for Australia.
China is Australia's second-largest export customer, just behind Japan. In the other direction, Australia this year was one of the largest recipients of Chinese investment.