A major stoush is looming over the future of the country's richest agricultural operation, once owned by media mogul Kerry Packer, with several high-powered international parties including Chinese bidders circling the sprawling Consolidated Pastoral cattle.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age understands Shimao Property Holdings, controlled by Chinese-Australian billionaire Hui Wing Mao, is one of several Chinese outfits showing a significant interest in the company, which operates 16 cattle stations valued at $1 billion.
Mr Hui, who already owns a major local beef operation, was one of several overseas interests considering a bid for the S. Kidman & Co pastoral empire, a company eventually acquired by Gina Rinehart and Shanghai CRED for $385.6 million in 2016.
But some sources said it would be difficult for a Chinese company to purchase Consolidated Pastoral, currently owned by British private equity firm Terra Firma, given the sensitivities around the sale of large agricultural properties to foreign buyers.
Treasurer Scott Morrison twice blocked the sale of S. Kidman to Chinese companies in 2016 - including to a joint venture between Shanghai Pengxin and the publicly-listed Australian Rural Capital - citing national security and national interest concerns.
There is also some disquiet among the Nationals about the failure of Chinese textile giant Shandong Ruyi to cut its ownership in the country's largest cotton farm, Cubbie Station, from 80 per cent to 51 per cent - which it was originally meant to do by October 2015.
The Herald understands Australian Rural Capital considered an investment in Consolidated Pastoral, while Shanghai Pengxin was not interested in attempting to overcome Foreign Investment Review Board hurdles to buy the 5.5 million hectares.
Former trade minister Andrew Robb, who operates a $750 million agricultural fund alongside the long-time Packer family lieutenant Ashok Jacob and sits on the board of Gina Rinehart's Outback Beef, was also approached to consider acquiring the company or individual cattle stations.
Sources said interests associated with Mrs Rinehart were the most likely buyer of the assets. The Australian Agricultural Company is understood not to be interested.
European, North American suitors
A source close to the deal said the sales process had been designed "to ensure Australian parties have every opportunity to participate".
“Given the process is for the business as a whole or in parts, and there are multiple possible permutations, it's no surprise it's going to take a while to work through," they said.
Interested parties also include European and North American funds, including investors who haven't been active in the agricultural sector in the past, it is understood.
The Queensland Investment Corporation was widely tipped to be interested in Consolidated Pastoral, but purchased the Northern Australia Pastoral Company in a $400 million deal in 2016.
Hong Kong-based private equity fund Genius Link Assets Management had also suggested it was interested in acquiring all or part of Consolidated Pastoral.
The sale of Consolidated Pastoral, which was created by Mr Packer in 1983 as part of Consolidated Press Holdings, has been run since January by Goldman Sachs and Knight Frank.
Weary of the failure to reach a deal, Consolidated Pastoral has quietly approached a number of local agents including CBRE and Meares & Associates to gauge interest in the sale of individual stations.
Prized cattle stations
Consolidated Pastoral owns some of the country's most prized cattle stations including Newcastle Waters, where a young James Packer worked for a year, and Isis Downs in Queensland.
The Northern Australia Pastoral Company, mining magnate Andrew Forrest's Minderoo, and Mrs Rinehart's Outback Beef would be the most likely interested parties in individual stations.
Shimao, which has spent close to $500 million on office buildings in Sydney since 2014, late last year purchased a controlling stake in Bindaree Beef - one of the country's biggest meat processing businesses - through the Hui family's Archstone Investments.
Shimao could not be reached for comment.
Kylar is The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age's CBD columnist. He recently covered federal politics, business and NSW politics for News Corp.