China's arrest of Rio Tinto Group's Stern Hu is related to a criminal probe into iron-ore price talks, not espionage, and the case may result in a decision to charge the mining executive, Australia's Foreign Minister said last night.

Stephen Smith, who met vice foreign minister He Yafei on Friday, again urged China to provide more information about the arrest of the Australian citizen, the minister told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

"If they do charge him, the precise details will be there for all to see," Smith said.

The investigation into Hu and three other Rio executives detained on July 5 has strained relations between China and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat to Beijing. China said last that Australia was an "interference" with the nation's legal sovereignty.

"It's quite clear they are focusing on a criminal or judicial investigation relating to the 2009 iron-ore negotiations," Smith said.

"They are not interested in what we would regard as espionage or national security matters."

Foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang had said that Hu was suspected of "stealing Chinese state secrets for foreign countries".

Rio has denied the claims against Hu, who manages the London-based company's iron-ore business in China, and the three other employees, who are Chinese nationals.

STAND OFF

* Stern Hu and three other Rio Tinto executives were detained on July 5.
* China on July 9 said Hu was suspected of "stealing Chinese state secrets".
* Australia's Foreign Minister last night said Hu's arrest was part of a criminal probe into iron ore talks and not for espionage.

- BLOOMBERG