The Australian federal government in Canberra and the Victoria state government have long been divided over the inclusion of states in the China Road and Belt (BRI) Initiative. Over the weekend, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added cracks.
Speak to Sky News on Sunday morning, Pompeo said that although he did not know specifically about Victoria’s involvement with Beijing, it could affect his country’s Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership with Australia.
“We will not take any risk for our telecommunications infrastructure or any risk to the national security element of what we need to do with our Five Eyes partners,” he said.
“As far as they have a bad impact impacting our ability to protect telecommunications from our citizens, or the security network for our defense and intelligence community – we just decide, we will only go our separate ways. “
BRI of ChinaThe 21st-century Silk Road, which includes new ports, highways, railways and other infrastructure projects, has taken over more than 70 countries worldwide. This is the most ambitious infrastructure project in modern history, with the simple aim of diverting global trade routes to and from China.
Daniel Andrews, Victoria’s prime minister, said after signing a memorandum of understanding with China on the BRI initiative in 2018 that the agreement would give Victorian infrastructure experts access to hundreds of billions of dollars of projects scheduled for BRI.
“With the largest infrastructure program in our country’s history, we have the design and shipping skills sought by China, which means more jobs and more trade and investment for Victoria residents,” he said.
“In four years, we have more than tripled Victoria’s share of Chinese investment in Australia and almost doubled our exports to China. We said we would reboot our relationship with China and we resolved it. “
Victoria’s agreement with Beijing is a agreements that are not legally binding for the country to get involved in BRI and for the two parties to work together on future projects.
Although Victoria was not bound by the agreement, Canberra argued that the state government crossed the line by interfering in foreign affairs, lacked a national security perspective, and overall was too comfortable with China – placing it contrary to Canberra’s cautious approach to Chinese investment in the region .
Tensions between Beijing and Canberra have increased since Australia calls for an independent investigation into the treatment of the corona virus in China. Beijing then banned beef imports from four Australian slaughterers and hit Australian wheat producers at 80 percent.
Manufacturers in Victoria have escaped relatively unscathed Chinese tariffs, however, and the four slaughterhouses banned by China from imports are based in the states of New South Wales and Queensland.
Following Pompeo’s statement, the US ambassador to Australia, Arthur Culvahouse Jr., issued a statement saying that he wanted to “set the record straight.”
“The United States has absolute confidence in the ability of the Australian Government to protect the security of its telecommunications network and its Five Eyes partner network,” he said.
“We do not know that Victoria has been involved in a concrete project under BRI, let alone a project that has an impact on the telecommunications network, which we understand is a federal matter. If there is a telecommunications initiative that we think is jeopardizing the integrity of our network, of course we must pay close attention to it, as suggested by the Secretary. ”
While Culvahouse is trying to restore Pompeo’s comments, the federal government in Australia has begun using it as cannon fodder in their criticism of Victoria.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Victoria was stepping into the area of federal government policy and that they did not support the decision at the time the agreement was made.
“The issue of national interests regarding foreign affairs is determined by the federal government,” he said. “It has always been a common practice for states to respect and recognize the role of the federal government in setting foreign policy.”
Interior Minister Peter Dutton described BRI as “a propaganda initiative from China” that brought “a lot of foreign interference.”
Others accused Victoria of undermining the federal government in its efforts to seek clarity about China’s handling of the corona virus and the ongoing relations between the two countries amid diplomatic fights that ensued.
On Monday, Era a newspaper in Melbourne reported that the Victorian government used BRI’s agreement with China as an election weapon to help the Andrews government win votes in three high-Chinese-Australian seats in the 2018 election.
While Victoria is under the spotlight, few took on the task to remind Australians that the federal government itself has made a joint infrastructure deal with China – even though behind closed doors.
The then Australian prime minister, Malcom Turnbull, told reporters in 2017 that “an agenda is probably the best way to describe [the BRI]. “
But Turnbull’s trade minister, Steven Ciobo, signed a memorandum of understanding in September of that year for cooperation in building infrastructure such as roads, bridges and dams in third countries.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has refused to release details of the agreement under the Freedom of Information Act, claiming that both parties to the agreement were requested to release the text of the MOU, but because China has not done so, Australia is bound under an element of confidentiality.
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