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Premier makes wrong turn on Belt and Road





On the global stage, there is no other foreign policy platform that comes close to its scale and ambition. China's Belt and Road Initiative is worth hundreds of billions of dollars in investment across more than 60 nations. But as Beijing attempts to surpass an increasingly divided US, President Xi Jinping’s grand plan has come to encapsulate the promise and pitfalls of dealing with the Asian giant.

The Age agrees with the federal government, which has expressed no firm views on the merits of the initiative except that it will not sign up. Many countries have borrowed heavily from China to invest in new projects, and as a consequence of that debt, China now owns a port in Sri Lanka. The state of Victoria has taken the unusual step – for a state or local government – of committing to Belt and Road. It is unlikely to suffer the same fate as Sri Lanka, but this is not the same sort of benign trade deal our states usually sign with other countries.

Having agreed to the initiative two years ago, Victoria finds itself at odds with federal government policy and national security advice. Premier Daniel Andrews signed the initial agreement in early October 2018 but kept its details under wraps for weeks. When its eventual release revealed little detail or binding arrangements, the level of secrecy raised suspicions. And by failing to consult with DFAT before signing the infrastructure deal last year, the Andrews government again opened itself up to accusations of secrecy and of undermining the national interest.

Premier Daniel Andrews' handling of the Belt and Road deal has been problematic.

Premier Daniel Andrews' handling of the Belt and Road deal has been problematic.

Photo: James Ross

With China more willing than ever to exert its growing economic might and territorial ambitions, and less willing to countenance criticism, Mr Andrews has given the federal government an unnecessary headache. It would be hard enough treading a fine line between a willingness to support democratic principles of openness and transparency, while preserving the enormous economic benefits that come with the relationship with China.

From the moment Mr Andrews won office, he was set on turbo-charging the state's ties with Beijing. In 2015, he made a point of taking a group of high-profile Victorians to China on his first overseas trip as premier, while vowing to send every minister in his government on the same journey within his first term. Eyeing the enormous financial windfall in attracting Chinese tourists, students and investment, it was a smart move as Victoria was losing its standing as a manufacturing hub.


But from the start Mr Andrews' handling of the Belt and Road deal has been problematic. Treasurer Tim Pallas’ ill-advised remarks last week about Australia’s “vilification” of China and blaming the Prime Minister for the barley tariffs have backfired.

Far from the coronavirus outbreak tempering China's willingness to exert authority across the globe, it has taken its ability to quash the virus as further justification for advancing its authoritarian ways. The recent move to take further control over Hong Kong, bypassing the local legislature in the process, is just the most high-profile instance of this new confidence.

China's forceful pushback in the form of new trade barriers on Australian products, the penalty for the entirely justified support for a transparent investigation into the origins of the pandemic, is just the local iteration of that new outlook. This type of geopolitical manoeuvring is not for state governments to be meddling in.

That there are more than 68 countries signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative and Victoria is an outlier in that regard should have been a red flag in itself. But fresh from recent battles with Prime Minister Scott Morrison over the opening of schools, Mr Andrews appears unwilling to back down. He has proved a strong leader in many respects and performed admirably during the coronavirus pandemic. But on Belt and Road he is making a mistake.

States should have close ties with China. Mr Andrews is right to align the state with the economic powerhouse. But the Belt and Road deal is more than just a forum for boosting investment and jobs. It's more than a way to forge better ties through co-operation. For President Xi, it's his signature policy that unites all of China's efforts to exert its influence across the globe. This is a delicate diplomatic situation the federal government must navigate to the benefit of all Australians. It's time Mr Andrews realised that and took a step back.


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