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Australia ready to join China-led bank, seeks clarity on governance

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia is "well and truly" disposed to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Wednesday, but wants to know how much power Beijing would hold in the institution before a formal decision.

Fairfax Media citing government sources, reported the federal cabinet has approved Australia signing a "memorandum of understanding" on joining the AIIB.

Australia, South Korea and Japan are the notable regional absentees from the bank, which the United States had warned against. Despite Washington's misgivings, U.S. allies Britain, France, Germany and Italy announced this month they would join the bank, leading the Obama administration to reassess its stance.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that China had proposed to forgo veto power at the AIIB to attract more countries to join the new bank.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Wednesday that each country's stake in the AIIB would decrease as new member countries are brought into the organisation.

She dismissed the notion that Beijing sought - or gave up - veto power as an "impossible proposition".

The AIIB has been seen as a significant and possibly historic setback to U.S. efforts to extend its influence in the Asia Pacific region to balance China's growing financial clout and assertiveness.

Although Australia is a vital part of Washington's strategic "pivot" towards Asia, it is close to joining as well.

"We are certainly well and truly disposed to joining something which is in fact a genuinely multilateral institution with transparent governance, clear accountability and with major decisions made by the board," Abbott told reporters.

"That is really the fundamental thing for us, would major decisions be made by the board and is it going to be a multilateral institution rather than one that is controlled by any one country," he said at a news conference in Canberra.

Japan, however, is cautious about joining while South Korea has said it is yet to decide.

Tokyo "does not need to sign in" on joining the bank unless China lays out clear rules on when and what conditions it will provide loans, Finance Minister Taro Aso said on Tuesday.

Japan is hesitant to join out of concern over China-led lending practices, Tokyo's relations with Washington and the AIIB's potential rivalry with the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Manila-based multilateral institution dominated by Japan and the United States.

But ADB chief Takehiko Nakao said his institution could cooperate with the AIIB and co-finance projects if standards for loans were met.

"When it is formally established, co-financing would be a major way of complementing ... We'd like to proceed with co-financing" and other ways of cooperation, Nakao, a former Japanese vice finance minister for international affairs, told a news conference in Tokyo.

By custom, the ADB is headed by a former senior official from the Bank of Japan or the country's finance ministry.

The World Bank has also said it is discussing cooperation with the AIIB.

Abbott said he has discussed the matter with U.S. President Barack Obama and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and would continue talking to them.

Speaking to the Australia China Business Council, Treasurer Joe Hockey said it was important to secure the country's best interest in a well governed bank that will work to promote greater infrastructure and growth in the region.

"If well designed, the AIIB could play a key role in helping to address the region's acute infrastructure needs. In order to do this we will need a strong and well governed AIIB," he said.

"It is early days for the AIIB, but China has made strong progress on governance so far. The proposed governance arrangements will be modelled on international best practice."

(Reporting by Ian Chua in SYDNEY, Tetsushi Kajimoto in TOKYO; Additional reporting by Gerry Shih in BEIJING; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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