A citizen walks in the rain in Sydney, Australia, on Feb. 9, 2020. (Xinhua/Bai Xuefei)

Chinese investment in Australia plunges as relations sour, virus bites

Chinese investment in Australia plunged almost two-thirds last year to less than US$1 billion as the impact of coronavirus was compounded by increasingly fraught relations between the two countries.

The reading marks the fourth straight drop and is just a fraction of the $13 billion injected into the country in 2016, with Canberra growing increasingly wary of the Asian superpower’s intentions.

Data from the Australian National University released Sunday showed direct investment plunged to US$800 million last year, from US$2.05 billion in 2019.

The pandemic has almost halved investment globally according to United Nations trade body UNCTAD, but a much larger drop was seen in China-Australia flows, according to ANU economics professor Shiro Armstrong.

Last year China’s direct investment to Australia focused on just 20 projects in three sectors — real estate, mining and manufacturing — the fewest in a decade.

“Naturally, this kind of data is lumpy, because of big projects, but there is a pretty clear trend we can see, since the peak in 2016 it has fallen every year quite steadily, quite dramatically,” Armstrong told AFP.

In 2016 there were a number of large investments from the China Investment Corporation, a sovereign wealth fund, and China’s State Power Investment Corporation bought Pacific Hydro.

While China remains Australia’s largest trading partner, political relations are at their lowest in decades, with Canberra recoiling at Beijing’s efforts to translate economic might into political and military power.

China has slapped punitive sanctions on a range of Australian exports as the two countries clash on a range of issues from influence operations, national security rules, China’s internal crackdowns and transparency over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

There is also growing concern in Australia that Beijing has used trade, investments and diaspora groups to gain political leverage, which has prompted a slew of legislation.

Armstrong said new Australian rules to screen investments for risks to national security had a particularly chilling effect and could help explain the decline.

“There is a national security test now for foreign investment, there have been high profile cases of Chinese investments being withdrawn” he said. “That shakes confidence in foreign investors.”

Australia has rejected Chinese bids for Japanese-owned Lion Dairy and local construction firm Probuild.

The Treasury Department is also reviewing existing investments, a probe that could lead to some projects being unwound on national security grounds.

That review is expected to conclude by December 10.

According to Australian government figures, China is the ninth-largest investor in the country, well behind the United States, Britain, the European Union and Japan.

Unlike official data, the ANU figures include investment from Chinese subsidiaries already operating in Australia, and track investments rather than announcements of investments to come.