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18/02/2008 | China - Mining the Possibilities of Rio Tinto

Stratfor Staff

The Aluminum Corp. of China (Chinalco) will consider bidding for a majority stake in the Rio Tinto Group should another company attempt a Rio Tinto takeover, a Stratfor source said Feb. 18. Chinalco’s interest in Rio Tinto is consistent with Beijing’s policy of snapping up global energy assets — but more than aluminum is at stake here.

 

The Aluminum Corp. of China (Chinalco) could bid for a majority stake in London-based mining conglomerate Rio Tinto Group should a third company attempt a Rio Tinto takeover, a Stratfor source close to the Australian government said Feb. 18. Beijing appears set on blocking an attempt by the world’s largest mining company, Australia’s BHP Billiton, to swallow up Rio Tinto — a move that would create a mining goliath worth nearly $350 billion.

Chinalco and U.S.-based Alcoa Inc. joined forces Feb. 1 to purchase 12 percent of Rio Tinto for an estimated $14.05 billion. It is unclear exactly how much more of a stake the Chinalco-Alcoa consortium would be willing to buy — and at what price — to counter BHP Billiton’s bid. The highest stake rumored until now has been up to 20 percent.

Considering that domestic energy security tops the Chinese government’s agenda, it is a given that Beijing is looking to carve out a niche in the world’s key resource sectors using state-owned energy companies. Chinalco’s interest in Rio Tinto, therefore, is consistent with Beijing’s efforts to snap up global energy assets.

There are, however, three key points to be made.

First, any hold on the world aluminum market that China can get via a majority stake in Rio Tinto would be split, given that Chinalco probably would not attempt such a politically controversial step without Alcoa or some other non-Chinese partner.

Second, in addition to its iron ore mines, Rio Tinto also owns a bauxite mine adjacent to a mine that Australia’s Queensland government has given Chinalco the rights to operate, the Stratfor source said. Moreover, Rio Tinto Coal Australia currently operates five coal mines in Queensland and three in New South Wales. In other words, should Chinalco (and Alcoa or another foreign partner) take over Rio Tinto, Beijing would gain indirect infuence over Rio Tinto’s bauxite and coal operations via its state-owned company. This would give Beijing a degree of control over one of the largest bauxite mining operations in the world — and strengthen its bargaining hand for Australian coal.

Third, China is interested not only in Australian energy resources, but also in Australian equity/banking assets. However, because the rates of return on Australian financial deals so far have not been as high as their U.S. counterparts, and because Beijing is uncertain as to how the Australian government and public would react to a significant Chinese purchase in Australia’s banking sector, China’s banking deals with Australia to date have been extremely conservative — smaller than 1 percent stakes. Once the Australian Foreign Investment Review Board has clarified the guidelines for investments by foreign sovereign wealth funds -– helping to clarify the Australian reaction — more Chinese funds and larger deals will likely start flowing into Australia’s financial sector. In Africa, Beijing has started interlinking its energy and financial acquisition strategies to bolster the security of its assets.

China’s Premier Wen Jiabao plans to visit Australia in the near future, and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is planning a trip to China. On Feb. 5, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi visited Canberra, where he and Rudd discussed the Rio Tinto deal. Although this activity does not confirm that a Chinalco-Alcoa takeover bid is imminent, China’s interest in Rio Tinto appears clear.

Stratfor (Estados Unidos)

 


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