After months of deliberating on state and territory agreements with foreign countries, the Morrison government finally last night moved to axe Daniel Andrews’ Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with China, announcing that the Memorandum of Understanding and Framework Agreement between Victoria and China would be among four deals canceled under the Foreign Arrangements Scheme.
The other two deals were also Victorian deals: a Kennett government deal with Syria and a Bracks government deal with Iran.
The BRI deals were struck by Andrews after lobbying by a Chinese government-linked foundation — which was itself funded by both the Commonwealth and the Victorian governments. A 2019 World Bank report found that many of the benefits of the BRI would be offset by large debt costs associated with projects, negative net costs for countries where the costs of projects exceeded their benefits, and lack of transparency around project deals. The extensive use of Chinese personnel, rather than local workers, on projects has also been criticised. However, regular western claims that the BRI is driven by a Chinese agenda of “debt trap diplomacy” have been challenged.
The primary problem with Victoria signing onto the BRI was never about on-the-ground implementation, however, since no projects have flowed from the deal. It was about a major Australian state actively undermining Australian foreign policy by signing onto an initiative that the Australian government had refused. Not all of the blame rests with the Andrews government, though. For years, the federal government was not merely ambivalent about the BRI, but seemingly disposed to it, after Tony Abbott’s foolish decision to sign up to what proved to be a worthless free trade agreement with China.
For a time, the Abbott and Turnbull governments were actively working with the Chinese to integrate plans to invest in infrastructure in north Australia — which also came to nothing — with the BRI. Watching the federal government showboat on trade issues seemed to encourage Daniel Andrews to do exactly the same.
The other problem is that it amounts to Australian legitimisation of the foreign policy of a brutal dictatorship — which has in part been directed at attempting to intimidate Australia into compliance with Chinese foreign policy goals, interfere in Australian domestic politics, and silence critics of its monstrous human rights abuses.
The moment the Chinese regime’s enthusiasm for interference and intimidation became plain, Andrews should have abandoned the deal. Instead, he clung to it for no apparent reason other than, seemingly, to irritate the federal government.
The Morrison government now faces the same issue: will it allow itself to continue to participate in arrangements that legitimise Chinese foreign policy and its outrageous abuses and are inconsistent with our national interest?
The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are just over nine months away — they’re due to commence in early February next year. International participation in the games would be another soft power triumph for the regime, just as the 2008 summer Olympics were — despite a Chinese government campaign using Chinese students to deter and prevent protests against it in other countries. Efforts by the Xi regime to deter and intimidate protesters are only likely to be even more blatant and brutal this time.
Given the regime’s ongoing mass-scale internment and repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, its crackdown on democracy and the rule of law in Hong Kong, its aggression against neighbouring countries and increasing military pressure on Taiwan, as well as its systematic human rights abuses, trade war with Australia, and routine attempts to interfere in domestic politics here, any participation in next year’s Olympics would be profoundly immoral, as well as utterly inconsistent with Australia’s national interest.
The Morrison government has done well to maintain Australia’s interests against Chinese aggression. Now it must go further and boycott an event that will be another triumph for a bloody, brutal regime.
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