Premier’s of­fice cen­sors emails on Silk Road deal

The Australian - - FRONT PAGE - RACHEL BAXENDALE DA­MON JOHN­STON

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.

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