Nothing to fear from China: Barnett

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian

Premier Colin Barnett has weighed into the debate over the Federal Government's plans to tighten rules on foreign investment and its relationship with China.

Mr Barnett said yesterday China had a strong view that Australia discriminated against its state-owned enterprises.

He said China regarded Foreign Investment Review Board regulations which singled out state-owned enterprises as "a slap across the face".

"China wants to be treated the same as European or American investors and I strongly support them," he said.

All investments by state-owned enterprises are subject to FIRB scrutiny, regardless of value.

The threshold for FIRB scrutiny is $248 million for private entities and $1 billion for investment from New Zealand or the US.

Mr Barnett said the rules on state-owned enterprises clearly targeted China, where all big businesses are state-owned or have some form of state backing.

The Federal Government has promised to crack down on foreign ownership in agriculture by drastically lowering the threshold for FIRB scrutiny. Under the plan, purchases with a one-off or accumulated value of $15 million would be investigated.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said this week that any move to crack down on foreign investment could create trade barriers.

However, on a visit to Beijing last year he warned: "It would rarely be in Australia's national interest to allow a foreign government or its agencies to control an Australian business."

Mr Barnett said Australia had nothing to fear from Chinese investment in agriculture, which was about creating security of supply.

He said urbanisation in China and the growth of the middle class represented a huge opportunity for WA farmers, horticulturalists and winemakers to build on the trade ties created through the mining industry.

WA producer Domaines and Vineyards is preparing a shipment of 50,000 bottles of premium wine to China after securing a three-year deal with a major distributor operating out of Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shanxi and Inner Mongolia.

DV winemaker Rob Bowen said the company was trying to establish a market for higher priced and quality wines, including its Pemberley brand.

DV has a vineyard at Pemberton and its wines are bottled at the Portavin plant in Hope Valley.

Mr Bowen, a leading figure in the WA industry, and DV managing director Stewart Sampson will visit China next month to meet sales people and educate them on the finer points of wine drinking.

"Wine is very much a product you sell one-to-one so my aim has always been to get customers to feel they know me and know my wines," he said.

WA wine exports jumped 30 per cent last financial year to almost $44 million and China has emerged as the biggest buyer, overtaking traditional markets in Europe and the US.

Mr Bowen said there was interest from Chinese businesses in investing in the WA industry.

Diversified manufacturing and food company Pegasus - owned by Chinese businessman Xingfa Ma - already has a controlling share in Great Southern winery Ferngrove. The Chinese market accounts for more than 60 per cent of Ferngrove's $12 million in annual sales.

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