Breakdown of Australian natural gas deal shows China becoming more market savvy

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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CALGARY - The disintegration of PetroChina's deal to invest in a US$40-billion Australian natural gas project shows resource-rich countries like Canada can't sit idly by and wait for Chinese investment to roll in, an expert in China-Canada relations said Wednesday.
"They're getting more sophisticated in dealing with the international market," said Wenran Jiang, chair of the University of Alberta's China Institute.
Australia's Woodside Petroleum Ltd. said this week that PetroChina had let a preliminary agreement lapse past the Dec. 31 deadline. The deal would have seen the Chinese state-owned firm buy up to three million tonnes of liquefied natural gas per year from the Australian offshore project for up to two decades.
While PetroChina did not immediately offer an explanation for its move Tuesday, observers said the Australian project likely lost some of its financial appeal since it was first conceived in Sept. 2007.
"You can see that when the market is not that favourable, they just drop it like that," said Jiang.
With its burgeoning population and breakneck economic growth, China has been hunting around the globe for raw resources like oil, natural gas and minerals.
"PetroChina will continue to look elsewhere because its not like their needs are going to diminish any time soon," said Paul Beamish, an international business professor at the University of Western Ontario.
Canada, a politically stable country with reserves in the oilsands second in size only to Saudi Arabia's, presents an attractive opportunity for Chinese firms looking for a secure stream of energy resources.
"If you think you're getting a certain supply of energy and it doesn't show up, either people are cold or factories can't operate," said Beamish, director of his university's Asian Management Institute.
"The stability of supply is very important, and that's where Canada's got a nice advantage."
Last year, PetroChina made its first significant foray into northern Alberta's oilsands through its nearly C$2-billion investment in two projects owned by privately held Athabasca Oil Sands Corp.
The announcement grabbed headlines in Canada, but the size of the deal hardly registers when compared to multibillion-dollar investments China has made elsewhere in the world.
The idea that countries can passively wait for Chinese investment to arrive on their doorstep is flawed, the University of Alberta's Jiang said.
"We have to remember that everybody else has resources, too - real and potential," he said. "The Chinese do not have to come to Canada when they don't see terms that are comfortable."
There are some factors that may give the Chinese pause when thinking about investing in Canada, Jiang said.
Labour costs are higher here, the regulatory regimes are complicated and, until recently, the Tory government was "not particularly friendly" toward China, though relations are warming, he said.
Additionally, China would have to vie with Canada's largest trading partner, the United States, for its resources.
And there is currently no way to transport Canadian oil and gas across the Pacific, and plans to do so are years away from coming to fruition.

Organizations: PetroChina, University of Alberta, China Institute Woodside Petroleum Ltd. University of Western Ontario Asian Management Institute Athabasca Oil Sands

Geographic location: China, Canada, United States CALGARY Australia Saudi Arabia Northern Alberta Pacific

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