Australia to defer decision on China land deal

Australian countryside near Bendigo, northwest of Melbourne. (CIA.gov)

Sydney | Reuters — The Australian government is deferring until after an upcoming federal election a politically sensitive decision on whether to allow the sale of one of the country’s biggest cattle empires, S. Kidman and Co., to a Chinese-led consortium.

Australian Treasurer Scott Morrison rejected a previous foreign-led offer for the ranching company — which owns agricultural lands equivalent in size to South Korea — just six months ago on the grounds of national interest.

Ownership of farmland is a sensitive issue in Australia amid concerns that foreign buyers are snapping up properties to cash in on a boom in food demand from Asia.

Morrison said the current A$371 million (C$365.6 million) offer, led by China’s Hunan Dakang Pasture Farming Co. Ltd. and Shanghai CRED Real Estate Stock Co. Ltd., would be subject to an extensive independent review taking up to 90 days.

That means a decision by the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) and the treasurer would likely come after a federal election expected to be held on July 2.

“It is a very big transaction and it is important we do the right thing by the national interest and that’s what I intend to do,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

“I want to be absolutely confident when I finally consider this matter that Australians have every opportunity to be participating in this process.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, meanwhile, played up the benefits of foreign investment that is not contrary to the national interest.

“Our goal is to ensure always that Australia’s national interest is advanced but remember we do benefit from foreign investment,” Turnbull told radio station 5AA.

“It’s very important that foreign investors, upon whom we depend for many of the jobs in Australia, see Australia as a safe place to invest in and a place where their applications will be considered carefully and methodically.”

The previous offer for S. Kidman by two Chinese companies, Genius Link Asset and Shanghai Pengxin, had raised red flags because Kidman’s Anna Creek cattle station in South Australia state is close to an Australian military rocket test site.

Kidman has agreed under the new deal to remove Anna Creek from the sale.

“The (Chinese) consortium and Kidman have complied with all requests that have been made by the FIRB and we believe the sale will secure the long-term future of the Kidman enterprise,” Kidman chairman John Crosby said in a statement on Tuesday.

Colin Packham is a commodities correspondent for Reuters in Sydney, Australia.

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