A push by Labor to engage directly with Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy by signing up to joint infrastructure projects in Australia’s north has been branded as a “bizarre” move that ignores national security issues and would deepen Australia’s dependence on China.
Opposition Treasury spokesman Chris Bowen has committed Labor to deepening Australia’s engagement with Asia, and China in particular, by adopting a “whole of government, whole of nation effort”.
In a policy speech to the Asia Society in Sydney on Friday, Mr Bowen said Australia should stop paying lip service to China regarding raw materials exports, and instead consider collaborating with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s funding of a global network of infrastructure projects in the region. He said Labor’s new “FutureAsia” policy would also focus on promoting Asian languages, and criticised a fall-off in Mandarin studies.
But China experts told The Australian that Mr Bowen’s policy was a “remarkably naive piece of work” because his enthusiasm for the Beijing strategy, also called the Belt and Road initiative, failed to account for the consequences of becoming a partner in ports, rail networks, bridges and roads.
Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said such a speech by Mr Bowen even in 2013 would have been regarded as “strange” in thinking only about economic opportunities, and not strategic downsides. “For it to be delivered in late 2017 is just bizarre,” he said.
“Here we have a speech that does not mention North Korea, the word nuclear, the word missile, or the South China Sea.
“It mentions security twice and defence once, but only in talking about domestic Australian ministerial arrangements. This is a speech completely absent of the big strategic issues of the day.”
Mr Jennings said Labor’s policy would risk Australia becoming more dependent, and too dependent, on a small number of Asian countries, especially China.
“What governments should be looking to do is to develop a global foreign policy,” he said.
A likely federal treasurer if Labor wins the next federal election, Mr Bowen’s policy speech gave official party status to backing earlier this year by frontbenchers Penny Wong and Jason Clare for China’s “One Belt” scheme. Yet Labor remains divided, with senior figures such as senator Don Farrell, Michael Danby and former senator Stephen Conroy known to harbour reservations.
Feng Chongyi, a China studies expert from the University of Technology Sydney, said Beijing was motivated by “united front work” to extend government influence.
Professor Feng said the Chinese government regarded Australia and New Zealand, which has already signed up to the One Belt initiative, as the “weak link of the West” because both appeared to accept a narrative of economic dependence on China.
He said the Chinese government could use such closeness to undermine the traditional US alliance. Chinese involvement in the port of Darwin also had implications for security because of local defence facilities, he said.
John Fitzgerald from Swinburne University has sounded warnings about lobby groups in Australia with backing from the Chinese Communist Party seeking to interfere in local politics.
One of three headed by property developer and party donor Huang Xiangmo, the Australian-Guangdong Chamber of Commerce, last year funded a China trip by Mr Bowen.
Anne-Marie Brady from New Zealand’s University of Canterbury warned of “the corrosion of democracy under China’s global influence” in a paper this month that stirred debate over her nation joining the One Belt initiative.
By BRAD NORINGTON