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By Hyunjoo Jin
SEOUL, June 20 (Reuters) - Softbank expects to reach an agreement “soon” with Alibaba Group over ownership of China’s leading e-payment provider Alipay, the Japanese mobile carrier’s CEO said on Monday.
Alibaba Group, China’s biggest e-commerce company, has been in negotiations with shareholders Yahoo Inc and Softbank over its transfer of Alipay, to a company owned by Alibaba founder Jack Ma.
Yahoo and Alibaba Group reached an agreement last month, but the deal requires the consent of Masayoshi Son, Softbank CEO and an Alibaba board member, who has been reluctant to come to the negotiating table, according to sources.
“We (Alibaba and Softbank) are good partners,” Son told Reuters on a sideline of a business meeting in Seoul, adding he expected to reach an agreement on Alipay “soon.”
Softbank founder Son didn’t elaborate on details of the talks with Alibaba.
Still, his comments suggest a major step forward to the long-running dispute over the crown jewel of Alibaba and potentially a big win for its founder and chief executive Ma, who has described billionaire Son as “the most difficult person” to negotiate with.
Yahoo owns 43 percent of Alibaba, while Softbank owns about a third. Yahoo’s stake in Alibaba, along with its 35 percent ownership in Yahoo Japan , is considered the U.S. Internet firm’s most valuable asset.
Shares in Yahoo have lost around one fifth since Ma said in early May that he took full control of Alipay, an online commerce payment similar to eBay’s PayPal.
Alibaba has said it informed the board in 2009 that Alipay would be transferred and was in discussions about the matter for more than three years, but Yahoo claimed it had been blindsided by Alibaba’s restructuring of Alipay.
Softbank shares were unchanged on Monday, while Alibaba.com , the listed unit of Alibaba, rose 0.2 percent.
Yahoo and Alibaba’s relationship has long been rocky. Observers say Yahoo has bristled at the way it has been sidelined on major decisions, while Ma’s company has been rebuffed by Yahoo in attempts to buy back some of the U.S. company’s invested stake.
Some investors believe Yahoo’s major assets in Asia could potentially be worth as much as Yahoo’s entire current market value and are betting that an IPO by privately held Alibaba, or one of its subsidiaries, could boost Yahoo’s valuation.
Yahoo has said all parties in the negotiations agreed on basic principles, particularly to ensure that Alipay would continue to be a driving force behind auctions site Taobao and that the payments system would be among the first to win an operating license from the Chinese government.
Alibaba said last week it has reorganised Taobao, China’s largest e-commerce website, into three separate companies, squashing any chance of a Taobao public offering.
Alibaba has wanted to buy back its stake from Yahoo and has tussled with Yahoo over the valuation of Taobao. (Writing by Miyoung Kim; Editing by Jacqueline Wong and Dhara Ranasinghe)