Rio staff trial seen as test for China

BEIJING: The trial of four Rio Tinto employees next week will be widely watched as a test of whether China is willing to honour committments to foreign investors and be a responsible member of the world community.

Australian national Stern Hu and three Chinese employees of the mining giant will be in the dock Monday on bribery and trade secrets charges in a case that has upset Australia and raised questions about the rule of law in China.

Canberra wants transparency in the three-day trial in Shanghai, but hearings on the industrial espionage charges will be closed, adding to questions over whether the men will get a fair hearing in the politically charged case.

The four defendants, all employees of the Anglo-Australian mining giant, were arrested last July during contentious iron ore contract negotiations which later collapsed, and after Rio snubbed a near 20-billion-dollar cash injection from state-run Chinese mining firm Chinalco.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd Thursday warned China the "world will be watching" the trial.

Australian National University law professor Ann Kent told AFP the timing of the trial smacked of gamesmanship.

It opens the same day Rio Tinto chief executive Tom Albanese speaks at an economic forum in Beijing and as tough iron ore price talks between Chinese steel mills and foreign miners are under way once again.

"This is blatant power politics (by China)," Kent said, adding that the timing was an "extraordinary coincidence."

"There might be a suggestion of a quid pro quo -- we might let your executives off (with a light sentence) if you give us what we want."

The trial also comes against the background of an announcement Friday from Rio Tinto that it had signed a 1.35 billion dollar deal with Chinalco to develop a huge mine in Guinea.

Sino-Australian trade has rocketed in recent years, driven by China's growing demand for Australian resources and the two countries have worked to minimise the diplomatic fallout.

Both sides said this week the trial will not affect bilateral relations, but the episode has put Canberra in a difficult position, said David Martin Jones, an international relations expert at Queensland University.

"There's a reluctance to alienate China too much by taking too tough a line on it," he said.

But the case also has global repercussions for a world trying to figure out how to deal with the rising colossus in the east, he added.

"It's something that's going to run and run," he said.

"We're going to have to live with a China that trades with its own understanding of what a market economy is and what a legal system is."

Australia has said consular officials will attend trial sessions on the bribe-taking charges and it has asked China to reconsider the closure of the trade secrets hearings.

Beijing has insisted the case will be handled by the book and it will "fully guarantee" the rights of the defendants, who include Chinese nationals Wang Yong, Ge Minqiang and Liu Caikui.