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Published 22 April 2013 11:33, Updated 08 May 2013 09:19
Clive Palmer’s comments on his Chinese business partner Citic Pacific are characteristically frank but probably won’t be used as a how-to reference in any textbook on doing business with Asia. Photo: Rob Homer
It’s fair to say Clive Palmer is no shrinking violet. Just ask Football Federation Australia chief Frank Lowy, Treasurer Wayne Swan, the entire Liberal National Party, or any of the other people he’s had disputes with over the years.
But whether the man who says he sat on chairman Mao Zedong’s knee at the age of eight – his family reportedly lived in China in 1962 and he regards himself as a great friend of the country – is doing the right thing by picking a public fight with Chinese investment partner Citic Pacific is unclear.
Not too many business people would go public accusing their Chinese business partner of trying to run a port “like they were in China,” as the combative Palmer did in The Australian Financial Review.
“We’ve got a situation over a Chinese company owning our infrastructure and running it like they were in China,” Palmer reportedly said. “The contract says we’ll make [Cape Preston] available to them from time to time to export their product.” The dispute is about which company, Palmer’s Mineralogy or Citic Pacific, has the right to decide on the use of Cape Preston.
Such comments don’t exactly leap out of the how-to guide on resolving disputes with Asian partners.
The managing director of consultancy Beasley Intercultural, Tamerlaine Beasley, says while handling any fight depends on the stage it is at, an often-used case study of a Chinese-Australian business dispute shows two sides can have very different ways of looking at a situation.
“A large oil and gas project reached an impasse,” Beasley says. “The Australians said: ‘Let’s go into a room, order in lunch and work though this.’ The Chinese partners said ‘No, no.’ They ordered a bus and organised to take both parties to the Great Wall on a tourist sight-seeing visit.
“The Australians were like, ‘What the hell? The negotiations are in a critical position. We don’t want to go to the Great Wall, have a banquet lunch and take photos.’ But when you ask the Chinese what they would suggest, they’ll say, ‘We need to demonstrate sincerity, to work on the relationship’.”
It is unknown whether Palmer and partners tried to talk this one out over lunch. His spokesman on Monday declined to detail any previous measures taken to smooth the troubled Citic Pacific waters.
If they haven’t, it may be too late for lunch – even with a coach trip to Fremantle thrown in. The strained relationship between Mineralogy and Chinese government-controlled Citic Pacific has already reached a stage where the two will meet in court this week on two separate issues.
The $6 billion Sino Iron magnetite project in the Pilbara region of Western Australia is delayed and a fight over royalties that Palmer says the Chinese company owes him starts in the WA Supreme Court on Wednesday. On Friday, a directions hearing takes place in the Federal Court in WA to schedule a case about determining rights usage at the Cape Preston port, about 50 kilometres west of Karratha.
A spokesman for the Hong Kong-listed company declined to comment.
Beasley declines to talk about the Mineralogy-Citic Pacific case. But she says that once the lunch stage is past, it’s important to know how the other side is likely to behave.
“When there is a conflict, how you resolve it in the early stages can be very, very culturally sensitive, but also when things are getting ugly, you definitely need to understand the cultural preference of the other side, the likely strategies and approaches of the other side,” she says.
In this case, perhaps Palmer is just behaving true to form. After all, in recent years, he fought Lowy publicly until the peak football organisation kicked Palmer’s Gold Coast United out of the A-League. Palmer also threatened to challenge Swan for his federal seat of after being singled out as part of the “0.1 per cent” of people in the country who try use their wealth to influence public debate. And the same Palmer resigned from the Liberal National Party last year after a series of public arguments with it.
“I thought that I can speak much more honestly to the people if I’m not restrained in any way,” he said in November, after quitting the party of which he was an honorary life member.
Palmer is keen to promote China-related business opportunities on all levels, as he showed in 2011 when he and Perth Wildcats owner Andrew Vlahov came up with a plan to sponsor three games between Australia’s Boomers national basketball team and China.
What was intended to be called the Deng Xiaoping Memorial Challenge, however, became the You-Yi Friendly Games, with the name announced on June 3 that year - a day before the memorial of another kind for the late moderniser Deng - the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
But Palmer’s generally not shy of a word. If the folks at Citic Pacific have done cultural research on their Australian business partner, they’ll hardly be surprised at his public comments. They may have even anticipated it.