SYDNEY, Feb. 8 -- Rio Tinto has named fluent Mandarin speaker Ian Bauert to head its China business, at a time of tense iron ore price talks and a case against four employees accused of illegally obtaining commercial secrets.
Bauert, a 30-year Rio Tinto veteran who opened the company's first China office 25 years ago, is specifically charged with improving relations with the Australian miner's largest customer, chief executive Tom Albanese said in a statement on Friday.
"I am deeply committed to developing our relationship with China," Albanese said. "Ian's experience and leadership will provide strategic direction and help guide all aspects of our engagement with China, one of our most important partners."
Rio Tinto's lead iron ore negotiator in China and an Australian citizen, Stern Hu, and three other staff from China were arrested last July and remain in detention in a commercial secrets case that was referred to a prosecutor last month.
Bauert comes to the post vacated by the relocation to the United States of Rio Tinto's former managing director for Asia, Tony Loo, who also held the separate job of managing director for China. Bauert's role will be limited to China.
China is Australia's biggest trade partner at $53 billion last year. Australia exported $15 billion worth of iron ore to China in 2008, or 41 percent of China's iron ore imports.
The appointment comes as Albanese takes strides to show investors the company has emerged from the financial crisis less scathed than some had thought and is back on a growth track.
Rio Tinto aims to boost iron production 6 percent to a record 230 million tons in 2010 and is considering a leap to 330 million tons within five years to capture growing demand for ore in the Chinese market.
If Rio Tinto pays a flat dividend for 2009 that would be seen as a clear signal that it is past its difficulties after slashing its $40 billion debt in half with a rights issue and asset sales, analysts said.
Rio Tinto shares were down 5.5 percent to A$66.24 ($57.38), while BHP Billiton was down 3.8 percent to A$39.44, reflecting weaker base metals prices and in step with declines in the wider market.