If you believe the likes of Tony Abbott, Barnaby Joyce and others, China is a big threat to Australia. Its companies are raiding our resources, the government is jailing our citizens and the property boom and hot economy poses threats to our economy that the federal government is not recognising.

So what will all these alarmists and gloomsters think of a new Chinese role that emerged yesterday; saving a big Australian resources company from being taken over by an American giant?

That’s effectively what has happened with the Chinese government “saving” Brisbane-based Macarthur Coal from having to face up to the $3.8 billion takeover proposal from Peabody Coal of the US.

In effect, the Chinese government has decided the fate of Macarthur, before the Australian shareholders and the Australian government could.

Queensland is where a lot of the alarm about China has emerged, thanks to the right-wing populism of the likes of Barnaby Joyce and others in the resources industry.

Yesterday, China has revealed for the first time its power in Australian resources.

As a result, investors lost as Macarthur shares fell 15% after it revealed that opposition from the Chinese government-owned CITIC, the largest shareholder in Macarthur, sank the attempt by Peabody (and presumably anyone else) to buy Macarthur.

Peabody had cut the price it was proposing to offer for Macarthur to $15 a share from $16 and blamed the reduction on the new super resource rent tax.

In a statement to the stock exchange yesterday, Macarthur said: “The Macarthur board has met today and considered Peabody’s further proposal and formed the view that based on the price and the conditions of the proposal, that it cannot reasonably be recommended to shareholders.”

Macarthur said its decision considered feedback from its two largest shareholders, China’s CITIC and the world’s largest steelmaker, ArcelorMittal.

CITIC is one of the most influential commercial groups in China. It was set up in 1979 (and approved by Deng Xiaoping) by Rong Yiren, who went on to become a vice-premier. CITIC is at the heart of the Chinese business and political establishment.

It owns just over 22% of Macarthur and subject to the approval of Macarthur shareholders in the next few months, can increase that by another 11 million shares. That deal would have been blocked had Peabody succeeded. CITIC was a founding shareholder in Macarthur and has certain marketing rights over its coal. Those will be handed back if the meeting agrees.

Given that background, it’s not surprising that CITIC didn’t like the Peabody bid and earlier approaches.

So yesterday, Macarthur directors said: ”CITIC does not find the (Peabody further proposal) attractive.

”CITIC believes that the long-term strategic value of Macarthur Coal exceeds by a significant margin the cash offer price contained in (Peabody’s further proposal).”

Peabody was willing to provide any or all of Macarthur’s three major shareholders, including South Korea’s POSCO, the opportunity to retain its economic interest in a privatised Macarthur.

”The terms of the shareholders agreement to govern a privatised Macarthur Coal will be critical in any assessment by CITIC,” CITIC said in comments quoted in the Macarthur statement.

”The proposed terms of a shareholder agreement tabled by Peabody in March 2010 are not acceptable to CITIC.”

In the absence of a renewed interest from Peabody, Macarthur can still hold a meeting by the end of next month and do the deal with CITIC, which will see the Chinese group’s stake in the group to well over 23%.

And there’s a further, indirect Chinese government role in Macarthur’s recent affairs

The Peabody approach and price of $16 a share effectively scuttled Macarthur’s deal with Noble Group, the Asian trading house, to buy control of Noble’s 87% controlled subsidiary Gloucester Coal, which is based in NSW.

There were a couple of other asset shuffles involved in the final deal proposed by Noble (one of which involves a share and marketing rights for Macarthur’s newest Queensland coal mine). But the bottom line would be Noble would emerge with a stake of 24.6% in Macarthur, and all other shareholders would fall by about a quarter.

Noble however is 15% owned by the Chinese government’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, the Chinese Investment Corporation.

If the Gloucester deal had happened, Macarthur (which is the world’s biggest shipper of pulverised coal used in the steel industry) would have been controlled by a group 15% owned by the Chinese government, with another Chinese government group owning 17%-18%. All up the Chinese government would have had direct or indirect influence over 40% or more of Macarthur shares. POSCO and Arcelor Mittal would have controlled another 15% or so between them.

It is all about guaranteeing the supply of key resources, such as coal. Noble Group is the biggest trading house in Asia. The 15% CIC investment would have been done for strategic reasons, with commercial (profits) a secondary reason.

That’s why the Chinese government has been the unseen player in the move on Macarthur by Noble; it already had CITIC there as a backstop. Noble would have completed the pincer attack.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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