Dryblower on the dangerous game of China v Rest of the World

CHINA versus The Rest of the World is not a game of football, it’s a competition which Dryblower reckons will reshape everything, including mining, which is likely to face a few difficult years especially if harsh words turn into damaging action.
Dryblower on the dangerous game of China v Rest of the World Dryblower on the dangerous game of China v Rest of the World Dryblower on the dangerous game of China v Rest of the World Dryblower on the dangerous game of China v Rest of the World Dryblower on the dangerous game of China v Rest of the World

Brewing for several years, the China v The Rest clash is worsening in a number of places with events in Hong Kong the most prominent but also found in a violent showdown on the border with India and in the snatching of Canadian hostages by China.

Australian mining companies, especially those with staff in China (and that includes Hong Kong) should not ignore the Canadian situation, nor should they ignore last week's warning from the prime minister, Scott Morrison, that Australians face a similar hostage risk.

At this point some readers might be wondering what's this got to do with them, a view which should change in the next few weeks when major mining companies, including BHP, Rio Tinto, South32 and Fortescue Metals file their full and half-year reports.

It's in those reports that the miners might have to include a warning of heightened risks in doing business in China, or in sending staff to China, and if those warnings are not in company reports then it might be a job for the auditors to consider the business-risk question.

Rio Tinto kicks off reporting season on Friday with its second quarter production report, followed by the half-year financial results on July 29. Because it's only a mid-year result there might not be a China-risk statement, but if there is it will severely strain relations with one of the company's biggest shareholders, Chinese-owned Chinalco.

BHP's full-year operational review is scheduled for Tuesday next week followed by the annual profit statement on August 18 and it's in that document which there could be comments on the deteriorating relationship with the company's biggest customer.

Fortescue Metals, arguably the miner of most interest in the China dispute, plans to file its fourth quarter report on July 30 followed by the annual results on August 24 with investors and politicians watching carefully to see how the company handles its interesting China relationship.

Earlier this year Fortescue's chairman and major shareholder, Andrew Forrest, found himself trapped between a rock and a hard place as he tried to placate angry Australian government ministers and equally angry Chinese diplomats who were swapping impolite comments.

For Forrest it must have been an alarming experience as he tried to demonstrate his "Australian-as-an Akubra" credentials with his "I'm-a-multi-billionaire-thanks-to-China certificate".

What's happening in China is deeply unpleasant and dangerous with no easy fix because it boils down to a clash of cultures and a deep-seated belief at all levels of Chinese society that the 21st century will be China's turn to dominate the world.

The rest of the world has, until now, seen this Chinese plan as a benign waking of a sleeping dragon which would behave like other countries, and abide by diplomatic and economic-trading rules.

Imposing mainland security laws in Hong Kong is a total abrogation of a deal to let the city prosper under a one-country two-systems agreement but what's worse is that China has introduced laws which it argues apply everywhere in the world.

In other words, if someone criticises the Chinese government in Australia, they are deemed to have broken Chinese law and can be arrested if/when they visit China or, perhaps, snatched off a foreign street and hauled back to China.

One excuse for this draconian action is that the US has been doing a bit of snatching for years under its anti-terrorism laws and China reckons if it's good enough for Uncle Sam to have a global law enforcement reach its good enough for China.

But there is a major flaw developing in what might be called a "Make China Great Again" campaign emanating from Beijing and that's the problem of fighting on too many fronts at the same time, a basic military mistake.

Last week a media colleague of Dryblower's raised the "China-stretched" issue in a story headlined (in part) "Friendless China is in trouble".

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard explored the forbidden question of China having problems, economically and diplomatically, as its picks fights around the world in the name of claiming global leadership, a position it last held 3000 years ago.

An argument over Huawei telecommunications equipment which can allow Beijing to eavesdrop on the rest of the world is what the Canadian hostage situation is all about in what should be a warning to Australia and its most exposed industry - mining.

Huawei is, however, the tip of an iceberg, as is Hong Kong and a stand-off with India.

The real message is that China might be in trouble because in throwing its weight around on the international stage it is losing more friends than it is making and that will further rile an already angry leadership.

For Australian mining companies the challenge is obvious. They need China as a customer, but not at all costs.

Over the next few weeks as report season rolls around the challenge will be whether the China factor can be ignored or whether directors will be forced to add a note to the accounts that there's a reliability and security risk with a major customer.