Australia sought Thursday to check on the welfare of a mining executive accused of spying in China and dismissed “wild speculation” that his arrest was linked to any trade disagreements.
Foreign affairs officials said Australia was pressing for access to Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu, who was detained by China’s secretive state security ministry in Shanghai.
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said Australia wanted to ease any concerns over the welfare of Hu, whose weekend arrest came as Rio pursues troubled talks with China on annual iron ore contracts.
“One of the reasons why we want access to him is to satisfy ourselves as to his wellbeing and to get some indication from him as to how we can be of assistance,” Smith told ABC television late Wednesday.
A Rio Tinto spokesman told AFP that it was not giving out any more information on the case due to its “sensitive” nature.
“Rio Tinto has been advised by the Australian Government of this surprising allegation,” said a company statement late Wednesday.
“We are not aware of any evidence that would support such an investigation. We will continue to work to support our employees and their families.”
Hu was detained along with three colleagues who are believed to be Chinese passport-holders. Under diplomatic protocols, Australian officials will not have access to Hu until Saturday.
State news agency Xinhua reported Thursday that the security ministry had confirmed all three others had been arrested for spying.
The row has cast a shadow over Australia’s relations with one of its largest trading partners, in which Rio Tinto plays a key role as a major supplier of iron ore and other raw materials to China’s growing economy.
Last month, the debt-laden miner snubbed a 19.5 billion dollar cash injection from China’s Chinalco after deciding that rising commodity prices made a huge rights issue and joint venture with BHP Billiton more attractive.
The Anglo-Australian company has also spearheaded fraught talks with China on new iron ore contracts, which missed a key deadline at the end of June.
However, Smith said there was no evidence Hu’s detention was linked to the disagreements between Rio and China.
“I’ve seen nothing which would cause me to in any way believe or form the conclusion ... that the events associated with Mr Hu are in any way related to Rio Tinto’s commercial activities,” he said.
Australian media have reported speculation that the detentions were linked to alleged manipulation of the iron ore market, while the Chinese press has accused Rio of withholding products to drive up prices.
China’s state-controlled Securities Times also quoted unnamed “industry insiders” as speculating the detentions may have been over suspected involvement in bribery.