Australian real estate besieged by Southeast Asian investors

Many Australians worry that Asians are ''gobbling up'' Australia. As Asians buy up large chunks of some of the choice Australian real estate, Australians are debating whether foreigners should be allowed to buy up land without restriction.

The issue is being widely debated here, both at the state level and federal level, and was an issue in the nation's election earlier this month.

Until now, Australian federal and state authorities have encouraged Asian investment in major projects.

But recent large-scale buying by Southeast Asians - mostly by anxious Asians from Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia who are skeptical about the long-term economic stability in their own countries - has come under close scrutiny.

Investments of more than $350,000 usually require the approval of the Foreign Investment Review Board. In some areas, such as major hotel developments, Asians have stepped in when local investors couldn't be found. Big hotels, apartment complexes, shopping malls, and office blocks are now Asian-owned as the result of a buying spree in the past three years. New construction projects are increasingly Asian-financed.

Officials say Asian property investments total billions of dollars but that it is not possible ble to put a figure on it because much of the buying does not require official approval.

When the amount to be invested is below the ceiling set by the Foreign Investment Review Board, no approvals are required. Asians have snapped up condominiums, small motels, houses, shops, and vacant land that does not need approval.

''No one's nationality is asked and no records are kept of how much property is Asian-owned,'' says an official of the New South Wales state government.

In Queensland, Labor Party leader Keith Wright declares: ''If something isn't done, the Gold Coast will be snapped up by Asian money.'' The Gold Coast is a Florida-type strip of condominium-style resorts south of Brisbane on Queensland's Pacific coast.

Politicians who favor controls on such buying deny that racism plays any role in their stands. One in three Australian immigrants these days is Asian. Politicians say they are not reverting to the ''white Australia'' policies that they abandoned years ago.

However, these politicians say they oppose any large-scale foreign buying-up of Australian land. In this instance, it just happens to be Asian, they say.

Many Asian investors believe owning a stake in Australia will count in their favor if ever they become refugees. With property-based incomes they will not be looking for welfare handouts.

The issue may be taken out of state hands. The new Labor government is expected to consider registering foreign landowners.

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