Labor Premier Daniel Andrews and China’s Ambassador Cheng Jingye finalised a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Australia’s second-most populous state and China on the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) on Oct. 25.
China’s BRI projects have already been facing a backlash in many countries, including Sierra Leone, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam where locals are accusing the initiative of being a platform to serve the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s own interests and conducting debt-trap diplomacy.
The Oct. 25 agreement makes Victoria the only state in Australia to formally support the BRI, also known as the One Belt One Road project.
“This new Australian-first agreement sums up everything we have achieved with China over the past four years,” Andrews said of his progressive government. “It means more trade and more Victorian jobs and an even stronger relationship with China.”
Andrews, of the Labor Party, was the only Australian state premier to be invited to China’s Belt and Road Forum that was held in 2017.
First announced in 2013 by China’s leader Xi Jinping, the BRI seeks to increase investment and trade links between China and the world mainly through joint infrastructure projects. China is calling for $5 trillion worth of investments globally to develop the BRI network around the world. It includes railways, roads, ports, energy systems, and telecommunications networks.
“In four years, we have more than tripled Victoria’s share of Chinese investment in Australia and nearly doubled our exports to China. We said we’d reboot our relationship with China and we’re getting it done,” Andrews said.
So far, 68 countries, including New Zealand, have signed up to the BRI.
Concerns About Belt and Road
Australia’s senior security figures have previously warned of serious “strategic” consequences if Australia formally enlists itself to the BRI, the Australian Broadcast Corporation reported.
Former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop also previously told Fairfax that the BRI is China’s vehicle “for greater political and strategic influence in the region” despite Cheng saying at an Australian China Business Council event in July in Darwin that the BRI “has nothing to do with geopolitics.”
The BRI has been criticized for potentially reinforcing corruption in countries with weak institutions. threatening democracy and benefiting Chinese firms rather than serving local interests, The Epoch Times previously reported.
Zeng Jianyuan, a scholar of national development at the National Taiwan University in Taipei, said that the Chinese regime aims to build up geopolitical strength in Asia although its own financial system is facing significant capital-constraints at home.
“Right now China is trying to continue its expansion and development,” Zeng told The Epoch Times previously. “By investing in small underdeveloped Asia-Pacific countries that have no way of paying off their loans, the CCP can guarantee lasting control over the bountiful strategic resources these countries possess.”
Australia and the BRI
While Australia has not formally signed up to constructing BRI projects inside its borders, Turnbull’s Liberal government did sign a MoU in September 2017 for cooperation with China to build infrastructure in third-party countries, including BRI projects, according to Fairfax.
Fairfax also reported on July 30 after submitting a freedom of information request that the September 2017 MoU had not been made publicly available because Beijing does not want it made public. Then-trade minister Steven Ciobo explained at the time that this was because “both parties are required to agree to release the text of the MoU and China has not agreed to do so.”
On July 31, Australia announced a trilateral partnership with the U.S. and Japan to invest in projects in the Indo-Pacific region. The partnership aims to develop infrastructure, increase connectivity, and drive economic growth in the region.
The trilateral pact is in direct competition to China’s BRI, and has been widely regarded as part of the United States’ efforts to offer smaller nations an alternative to the BRI, AAP reported. The alternative would be free from the risks of China’s incomplete market economy that is under the political control of a totalitarian autocracy.