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Chinese premier focuses on critical minerals, clean energy on final day of Australian visit

China's Premier Li Qiang, center, visits Tianqi Lithium Energy in Perth, Australia, June 18, 2024. Li is on a four-day visit to Australia.
China's Premier Li Qiang, center, visits Tianqi Lithium Energy in Perth, Australia, June 18, 2024. Li is on a four-day visit to Australia.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang has ended his Australian tour on Tuesday in the west coast city of Perth where he has focused on China’s investment in critical minerals, clean energy and business links.

Perth is the capital of Western Australia state, which provided 39% of the world's iron ore last year. Iron ore is one of Australia's most lucrative exports. Analysts say the commodity was spared the type of trade bans Beijing imposed on other Australian exports as bilateral relations soured three years ago because the steel-making ingredient was crucial to Chinese industrial growth.

Li last week became the first Chinese premier in seven years to visit New Zealand then Australia. He left Perth late Tuesday for Malaysia, where he'll be China's first premier to visit since 2015.

While in Perth, China’s second-most powerful leader after President Xi Jinping inspected iron ore miner Fortescue’s clean energy research facility.

Fortescue’s chairman Andrew Forrest said Li was interested in the company’s plans to produce iron ore without carbon emissions and potentially “green iron.”

“I think China chose us because it’s not just the best technology to go green in Australia, it’s the best technology to go green in the world and we’ve got real examples of it in trains, ship engines, trucks,” Forrest told The Associated Press before the visit.

The Perth facility is testing technology on hydrogen, ammonia and batter power for trains, ships, trucks and heavy mining equipment.

Li also visited Chinese-controlled Tianqi Lithium Energy Australia’s processing plant south of Perth to underscore China’s interest in investing in critical minerals. The plant produces battery-grade lithium hydroxide for electric vehicles.

Australia shares U.S. concerns over China’s global dominance in critical minerals and control over supply chains in the renewable energy sector.

Citing Australia’s national interests, Treasurer Jim Chalmers recently ordered five Chinese-linked companies to divest their shares in the rare earth mining company Northern Minerals.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese wrote in an opinion piece published in Perth’s main newspaper, The West Australian, on Tuesday that his government was acting to ensure foreign investment “continues to serve our national interests.”

“This includes reforming the foreign investment framework so that it’s more efficient, more transparent and more effective at managing risk,” Albanese wrote.

Forrest said the national risk from Chinese investment in the critical minerals sector was overstated.

“Australia should be producing all the critical minerals in the world because we’re a great mining country, so by all means let’s go in harder after critical minerals, but let’s not do it with panic because there is no reason for panic,” Forrest said.

Qiang and Albanese flew to Perth in separate planes late Monday from the national capital Canberra where the two leaders held an official annual meeting with senior ministers in Parliament House.

Both leaders attended a round table of business leaders in Perth representing resource companies including mining giants BHP and Rio Tinto.