SYDNEY, March 29, 2010 (AFP) - Australia expressed shock on Monday at the "very tough" jail term handed to Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu and questioned the Shanghai trial's transparency, but insisted the case would not affect ties.
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith described the seven-year bribery sentence as "harsh" and said China's move to close part of the trial raised "serious unanswered questions".
The Australian national was sentenced for a total of 10 years in the highly sensitive case, while three Chinese colleagues were jailed for between seven and 14 years.
"On any measure this was a very tough sentence. It's a tough sentence by Australian standards," Smith told a specially arranged press conference.
He called China's decision to close part of the trial, which focused on collapsed iron ore contract talks, "very regrettable" and said the country had missed a chance to clarify its commercial secrets laws.
"This of course was very regrettable, a part of the trial to which Australian officials did not have access to," he said.
"And as a consequence of that, I think there were serious unanswered questions which go to that part of the trial... but also more generally to the Australian business community and to the international business community."
But he did not expect any fall-out for Australia's relationship with booming China, its top trading partner and the world's biggest iron ore consumer.
"I don't believe that the decision that has been made will have any substantial or indeed any adverse implications for Australia's bilateral relationship with China," he said.
"We continue to have a very strong economic and broader relationship with China."
Rio Tinto, which Monday sacked Hu and colleagues Wang Yong, Ge Minqiang and Liu Caikui, said it too wanted a strong relationship with the Asian power.
"I am determined that the unacceptable conduct of these four employees will not prevent Rio Tinto from continuing to build its important relationship with China," chief executive Tom Albanese said in a statement.
Relations between Australia and China plunged after Hu's arrest last July but have largely recovered since the charges were eased from spying and stealing state secrets.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had warned that the "eyes of the world" were on the trial, which analysts have interpreted as an important test case for China's judiciary and for foreign businesses working in the country.
Hu and his colleagues were arrested on July 5 by counter-espionage agents during the failed iron ore contract talks, and just weeks after Rio snubbed a major investment from China's state-run Chinalco.
Greens leader Bob Brown denounced the sentence, to be served in Shanghai, as "huge", while analysts were also surprised at its severity.
"The Chinese system always claims that they give leniency to those that confess and severity to those who resist. And I wouldn't see this as leniency," said Ann Kent, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University College of Law.
"I think it sends a very strong message to the world to be very careful in doing business in China."
Rapidly industrialising China's huge appetite for iron ore and coal is driving an Australian resources boom which helped it survive the global downturn as the only Western country not to enter recession.
About 40 Australians have either been convicted or are currently before the judicial process in China, and would continue to receive consular support like all other citizens, Smith said.
The minister said Hu had been allowed to see his wife after the verdict was handed down, the first time the pair had met since his arrest eight months ago.
He said while Hu had been under pressure because of the trial and had received treatment for minor ailments, officials were happy with his wellbeing.