Premier’s office censors emails on Silk Road deal
The Victorian Premier’s office has refused access to details of crucial national security advice it received before signing up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Documents obtained by the Victorian opposition show emails were exchanged between the Andrews government and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade just months before the deal in October 2018. The substantive content of the emails has been blacked out. Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien slammed the secrecy, saying it was designed to protect “Labor’s cosy deal”.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, in my view, is behaving foolishly, incompetently and in effective, if not intentional, betrayal of Australia’s national interests in his embrace of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, and in his government’s badmouthing of his own country in relation to the series of disputes between Beijing and Canberra.
Andrews is not only contradicting the foreign policy of his national government and setting out a state foreign policy against the interests of national foreign policy in areas of geostrategic sensitivity, he is contradicting the national security position of his federal party. Both the Morrison government and the federal Labor opposition share a bipartisan policy on Beijing’s BRI. Both sides of Australian politics welcome Chinese investment in Australia. The vast majority of Chinese investment proposals are approved by the Foreign Investment Review Board. Some are rejected on national security grounds and neither the government nor opposition has ever seriously questioned the integrity of the FIRB process, although both sides of Australian national politics believe each Chinese investment proposal needs to be assessed on its merits.
There is no case at all for Australia signing up to BRI in a standalone statement of principle.
The problem with the BRI mechanism is that it is a fairly naked attempt by Beijing to maximise geo-strategic power through the leverage of commercial influence.
Many BRI projects have become effectively debt-trap diplomacy in countries that cannot afford to pay back Beijing’s loans and sometimes have to forfeit ownership of the infrastructure or other assets financed under BRI.
Beijing has also used its power within a BRI project to force infrastructure to give priority to
Chinese users. In yet other cases, Chinese workforces have been imported with little or no technology transfers to local populations. And the quality of the work has been highly variable.
All of Australia’s policy, analysis and intelligence agencies, across the board, see the BRI as a Beijing play for geostrategic influence and power.
Having said that, the Australian government does not publicly disparage the BRI or campaign against it and does not discourage other nations from signing up if they wish to.
In all these issues, Andrews and his government are operating way out of their depth. They have no institutional knowledge of these matters. Nor have they sought detailed input from the federal agencies that could help.
The Chinese have been dealing with self-inflated provincial leaders who fancy themselves as geo-strategic players for a long, long time. They play them off a break.
The odds are heavily against Victoria getting anything useful out of this, but Beijing gets an immediate pay-off. In its propaganda campaign against Australia, it can reinforce its dishonest portrayal of Canberra as a feckless lackey of the US and cite in evidence the Victorian government opposing its own national government.
Andrews is assisting the dividing of Australia politically by a foreign government with hostile intentions. It’s a disgraceful performance.
Whatever agreement he eventually finalises with Beijing, its practicality will be very limited.
Any Chinese investment in Victorian infrastructure, or in any part of Victorian industry, will have to get FIRB approval, which has nothing to do with Andrews.
Most BRI announcements are all hat and no cattle — big headlines, little specific reality.
The Andrews government has committed two acts of policy vandalism. The first is to pursue the BRI agreement against national policy. The second is for its Treasurer, Tim Pallas, to join the Beijing propaganda war against Australia at a time when China is recognised as behaving completely unreasonably.
State governments are typically bad at foreign policy. None has been worse than the Andrews government.