SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian police have agreed to assist China in the extradition and seizure of assets of corrupt Chinese officials who have fled with hundreds of millions of dollars in illicit funds, the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported.
The operation will make its first seizure of assets in Australia within weeks, the newspaper quoted Bruce Hill, manager of Australian Federal Police (AFP) operations in Asia, as saying in an interview.
China announced in July an operation called Fox Hunt to go after corrupt officials who have fled overseas with their ill-gotten gains. The campaign is part of President Xi Jinping's broader crackdown on graft.
Getting cooperation from Australia would be a coup for Beijing, which has struggled to get its hands on suspects in Western countries, whose governments have been reluctant to hand over wanted Chinese over concerns whether they would get fair trials back home.
The United States, Canada and Australia are the three most popular destinations for suspected Chinese economic criminals, Chinese state media have said.
Australia and China have agreed on a priority list of alleged economic fugitives who have taken up residence in Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald said.
Among the suspects identified by the AFP were naturalized Australian citizens and permanent residents who had laundered money for years in the guise of genuine investment or funds of business migrants from China, it added.
The priority list agreed between China's Ministry of Public Security and the AFP was culled from a broader list of "less than a hundred people", Hill told the paper, adding that the assets China was pursuing in Australia were in the "many hundreds of millions of dollars".
A spokeswoman for the Australian Federal Police told Reuters on Tuesday that Canberra had already successfully confiscated the proceeds of crime from Chinese economic fugitives and would continue to do so.
"The AFP cooperates with Chinese authorities in assisting to trace and restrain illicit assets in Australia on behalf of Chinese authorities," she said on condition of anonymity, in line with official procedure.
Australia and China do not have an extradition pact, but the Australian attorney-general can consider extradition requests for offences under the U.N. Convention against Corruption, to which Canberra and Beijing are both parties.
"We only see what's on face value, this person has committed an offense," Hill said. "There is a human rights side; we need to make sure that we're monitoring that as well, that this is not done for political expediency, where we can."
An official of China's Ministry of Public Security hailed the arrangement in an interview with a state-run newspaper, the China Daily.
"In recent years, Chinese and Australian police have strengthened judicial cooperation in sharing intelligence and case investigations," said the official, who was not identified by the newspaper.
"We will boost cooperation with our Australian counterparts in the hunt for corrupt officials who flee to Australia, and we will seize their illegally transferred assets," he said.
The sums of money believed to have been spirited out of China from all types of malfeasance are staggering. The Washington-based Global Financial Integrity group, which analyses illicit financial flows, estimates that $1.08 trillion illegally flowed out of China from 2002 to 2011.
Last week, Australia took steps to boost a visa scheme aimed at luring investment from wealthy Chinese, including speeding up approvals and expanding investment avenues.
Reporting by Matt Siegel and Swati Pandey in Sydney; Editing by Clarence Fernandez