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Cautious Response to Chinese Energy Investment

10 Aug 2016
By Colin Chapman FAIIA
CGI view of Hinkley Point C

This week, Treasurer Scott Morrison halted the sale of NSW electricity provider Ausgrid to the Chinese and Hong Kong bidders on national security grounds. This follows British Prime Minister Theresa May’s shock decision to suspend a Chinese-backed deal to build Britain’s first new nuclear power plant in 20 years. Both actions indicate strong concern about how to manage energy security at a time when government coffers are depleted and Chinese investment funds are plentiful. Given the similarities, the UK’s final decision may provide a precedent for Canberra.

When billion-dollar Chinese investors come calling, especially if they carry the visiting cards of Beijing’s vast state-owned enterprises, Australia’s watchdogs prick up their ears. And so, after a heated debate over the last week, Treasurer Scott Morrison made a preliminary decision to block the sale of New South Wales electricity provider Ausgrid to either the Chinese state-owned company State Grid or Hong Kong’s Cheung Kong Infrastructure citing national security concerns.

Australia’s concerns about energy security and Chinese investment are mirrored in UK where, up until two weeks ago, the British government seemed relaxed about China part-funding a huge new AU$34.8 billion nuclear power station. The nuclear plant, to be built by France’s Electricite de France (EDF) in rural Somerset, would generate 7 per cent of the United Kingdom’s electricity.

The former Cameron government had waved through the deal and had even agreed to pay twice the current going wholesale rate for power generated at Hinkley Point, which was to be the first nuclear power station to be constructed since 1995.

On Wednesday two weeks ago, the board of EDF gave it final approval and a signing ceremony was set for Friday 29 July, with business leaders and other luminaries party to the deal gathering to celebrate. These included China General Nuclear Power and China National Nuclear Corporation.

On the eve of this event, Britain’s new prime minister, Theresa May, intervened. She stunned both the French and the Chinese by blocking her predecessor’s deal saying she wanted to spend some time looking at it again, including the thousands of documents associated with it. She promised to come up with a decision by September.

Britain is running short of power and recently had to agree to a deal with the French to lay a cable across the English Channel to top up supplies. There could be issues over the cost and timetable of construction, or the price to be paid for the power generated.

But what seems much more likely is that Theresa May has been influenced by her joint chief-of-staff, Nick Timothy, who has been an open critic of David Cameron’s “golden era” relations with Beijing, saying Chinese investment in sensitive sectors raised security concerns.

After years of taking tough but well-regarded decisions in her previous job as home secretary, Theresa May is instinctively cautious, and in Cabinet was critical of what she saw as Chancellor George Osborne’s “gung ho” approach to China. Upon becoming prime minister, she sacked Osborne.

It is likely Nick Timothy’s writings will have been in her mind when she told French President Francois Hollande that she wanted to think further about Hinkley Point. Timothy has suggested that China could use its stake in British Nuclear to engage in energy blackmail, much as Russian President Vladimir Putin has done with Eastern European states that criticise him.

It is likely May will also have read the verdict of the international tribunal in The Hague on China’s actions in the South China Sea. In her previous job, the British Prime Minister showed she hates bullies and injustice—whether displayed by policemen, discrimination against women or through intolerance. She has not much time for the super-rich either, so hints made by a variety of Chinese officials that holding off on a final decision on Hinkley Point may lead Beijing to reconsider its intentions on other multi-billion dollar investments will not impress her either.

Still, the prime minister has her critics. One of them is Professor Kerry Brown, formerly head of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and now professor of Chinese studies at Kings College, London. He said, “This was the key deal from [President] Xi Jinping’s visit last year: it accounts for 10 per cent of the $60bn that was promised. It is a tremendous loss of face because it means that nothing on the list [of agreed deals] is really credible now. The whole impetus is up in smoke.”

Whether that is the case remains to be seen. The Brexit vote in the June referendum by 52 per cent to 48 per cent to leave the European Union has unnerved British business, not least because it has become clear it will be at least two years before this comes about, if it comes about at all. Consumer confidence, purchasing managers’ sentiment, forecasts for economic growth and other indicators are all down. The Scots are determined to try and find a way to remain in the EU and both houses of Parliament are opposed to Brexit, as was Theresa May herself. Economic pressures may yet persuade her to go ahead.

But this stand-off with China is being closely watched in Europe, the United States and Australia. The European Union is minded to take action against what it sees as dumping of Chinese steel and ironically was persuaded to hold off taking action by May’s predecessor David Cameron.

If Hillary Clinton prevails in the US election in November, her administration will have to deal promptly and carefully with China’s moves in the East and South China seas while also rescuing some remnants of the disintegrating Trans-Pacific Partnership and fulfilling her quasi-protectionist pledge to recreate American jobs. Clinton, it should be remembered, lobbied Australia hard against joining the China-run Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank while Secretary of State in the Obama administration. The then Prime Minister Tony Abbott agreed with her, then changed his mind.

With a rising Australian budget deficit and an urgent need to fund new infrastructure—including a strategic shipbuilding industry in Adelaide, a second Sydney airport and a host of other schemes, many of them strategic and some in the energy sector—the Turnbull government will no doubt be faced with even more difficult choices when Chinese capital and part-control appears to be the easiest solution.

How Theresa May navigates the shoals of the Hinkley Point nuclear project may provide some interesting precedents.

Colin Chapman, recently in Europe, is the immediate past president of the AIIA in NSW. This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.