China belt and road initiative

Xi Jinping (C), his wife Peng Liyuan, and Vladimir Putin at the Belt and Road forum.

China will be on the minds of the Prime Minister and many of his cabinet even more than usual this week with the overhyped summit for the overhyped Chinese government “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) — planned to link the east and west of Eurasia via road and sea — commencing at the weekend in Beijing.

Critics, including importantly Australia’s defence and espionage establishment, believe it to be empire-building, and therefore a potential strategic threat. Others — such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Australia’s all-talk-little-action business “leaders” — see opportunities. Nowhere, it seems, has the government bothered to explain the environmental devastation and trampling of land rights that BRI projects are inflicting on China’s neighbours.

The conference comes two weeks after academic Clive Hamilton eviscerated Australian National University professor Hugh White, with a searing take-down of the defence expert’s long-held position that Australia must, effectively, appease China’s military ambitions in the interests of regional peace and trade.

These are the latest parts of the thorny China puzzle that Australia has left in its box, tucked away on a high shelf, for almost a decade by successive governments whose various departments have, at times, appeared contradictory, hoping it will either solve itself or simply disappear. A whole-of-government China policy is overdue and there has been a collective failure of both sides of the Australian Parliament.

But with the Prime Minister set to deliver the keynote address at the region’s de facto annual summit in Singapore in just three weeks time, the time for ducking and weaving a key issue for the country’s future is over. People who have no concept of what real diplomacy is, or who do not understand nuance, say we must “choose” between the US, our main defence ally and biggest investor, and China, our major trade partner. This is wrong. The question is how Australia balances its interests. To do that, we must be clear about what those interests are.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is currently writing a rare white paper on foreign policy. The project is being helmed by experienced DFAT staffer Richard Maude. Possibly at the centre of the paper will be some enlightenment on the question: what exactly is Australia’s mid-to-longer term China policy, beyond selling as many rocks, student places, food and tourist services as possible?

The big problem and the reason that every PM since Kevin Rudd has avoided such a debate is that even giving an answer on China and the US will upset someone. And with increasing confusion in Canberra, including a polarisation of views in the bureaucracy — and, of course, then there’s the Donald Trump wild card — the paper now looks increasingly like a no-win for the government, which is, right now, singularly focused on the domestic issues where elections are won and lost.

And so the debate is raging. Here is what Clive Hamilton says about Hugh White’s appeasement policy:

“White lectures us that we must be ‘realistic,’ but what kind of realism is built on a structure of false understandings? He criticises those like Stephen Fitzgerald who argue, just as he does, that 1) China is destined to dominate Asia, 2) the United States’ presence will diminish, and 3) Australia should shift its allegiance away from the United States and toward China.”

And then:

“He diverges from them only on their judgment that by getting closer to China we can influence Beijing and shape its policies in our interests. We will not be able to influence Beijing but will have to accept whatever it dishes up. We cannot shape Beijing’s policies; Beijing will be shaping ours. Even so, he says, there’s no choice but to back the economic winner, because if we don’t so choose then we will be forced into it by China’s sheer economic might.”

It is also raging on the BRI. At a closed-door session in Brisbane during the visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Crikey has learned that Australian defence officials presented the BRI as a strategic threat to Australia.

And, of course, it’s just more debt for China, initially this time off balance sheet and foisted onto unsuspecting, developing world nations.

Cranking up the printing machines for its currency, the renminbi, to offer loans to belt and road nations will help maintain Chinese growth, but this time the national wealth improvement in the “lucky countries” involved, will go precisely nowhere — and China’s elites and the party will be taking it in at an ever-increasing clip, ensuring Gini coefficients and any real economic reform along the road(s) and belt(s) will flatline. And if the loans can’t be paid back, China will take the asset, thanks very much.

And so far the projects are also exporting China’s shocking environmental record, as well as its history of summarily dislodging whole communities with limited compensation. There is pushback in central Asia related to Chinese treatment of ethnic Muslim Uighurs and many projects are in very dangerous places. So it’s worth a good, hard look before leaping into China’s latest economic colonisation project.