SYDNEY Australia said on Monday it plans to update its foreign investment policy to ensure a level playing field for all countries, after it was criticized for rejecting bids from China and Hong Kong for a A$10 billion ($7.5 billion) energy grid.
Notes for a speech to be delivered by Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo at a Hong Kong investor conference later on Monday show he plans to say the government will "have more to say soon" on its foreign investment policy for critical infrastructure.
"The policy will ensure that Australia's approach to foreign investment is non-discriminatory between nation-states, proportionate to the risks involved (and) supportive of continued foreign investment and Australia's reputation as a foreign investment destination," the speech notes said without giving further details.
The minister's comments appear to be at odds with remarks from a source within the Ausgrid sale process who has said North American bidders will be allowed to make offers without partnering with an Australian entity.
Ciobo is visiting Hong Kong after the government blocked bids last month from Cheung Kong Infrastructure Holdings Ltd (CKI) (1038.HK), one of Hong Kong's biggest listed companies, and the Chinese government's State Grid Corp of China for a half share in Ausgrid, Australia's biggest power network.
Rebuffing those bids, Australia cited unspecified security concerns.
But China's commerce ministry reacted angrily, saying the move was protectionist, and warned that it "seriously impacts the willingness of Chinese companies to invest in Australia".
Ciobo's speech notes didn't discuss the State Grid bid but showed that he will say CKI has invested in Australian energy utilities for nearly 20 years and is considered a trusted member of the business community
Australia's decision not to sell Ausgrid to a company as reputable as CKI "underscores that the Ausgrid decision pertains to the asset itself, not to the potential owners", the speech notes said.
Ausgrid supplies power and communications services to business and government. "The national security concerns relate to the transaction structure and the nature of the assets, not to any particular investor," the notes said.
($1 = 1.3271 Australian dollars)
(Correct minister's surname in second paragraph)
(Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)