The controversial Belt and Road Initiative has been in the news over the past seven days, but what exactly is it and how does it affect Australia?
Victorian premier Daniel Andrews says his state’s proposed deal with China will bring much needed jobs and new infrastructure to the state.
Victoria’s opposition says it’s all about the Chinese Communist Party seeking greater political influence in the region.
Here’s what you need to know.
Officially known as ‘One Belt, One Road’, China’s key foreign policy and economic strategy is more commonly referred to as the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI).
The term derives from the overland ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ and the ‘21st-Century Maritime Silk Road’, concepts introduced by China’s President Xi Jinping in 2013.
The ancient Silk Road was a famous network of trade routes linking China to the rest of the world from 130 BC until the middle of the 15th century.
As well as precious silk, China exported tea, dyes, spices, gunpowder and many other goods to the rest of the ancient world.
In turn, it received dozens of commodities from the west, including gold, camels, weapons and even slaves.
Contemporary silk road
China is seeking to economically re-link to Europe.
It wants to do so via maritime and overland routes through countries across Eurasia – chiefly those from the former Soviet bloc – and the Indian Ocean, and a second link to Africa via Oceania.
That is where Australia, New Zealand and a dozen Pacific island nations come into play.
The initiative relies heavily on diplomatic ties, as well as trade and foreign affairs ties, between all of these countries.
Attracting the most attention are China’s multi-trillion dollar infrastructure projects – building railways, roads, ports, energy systems and telecommunications networks across the world.
There are major concerns as the world’s largest Communist-controlled country enters into more and more partnerships to build this massive infrastructure, with countries that have much less economic power and political clout.
It is believed that China has so far established 75 overseas economic and trade cooperation zones in 35 countries.
Why is BRI controversial?
In Australia’s neighbourhood, Malaysia and Sri Lanka have embraced China’s BRI wholeheartedly while Vietnam and India have been less enthusiastic.
India has repeatedly expressed concerns about China’s strategy of stumping up the cash to pay for massive infrastructure projects in poor countries, in return for much greater economic and political power – and access to natural resources – in the region.
As a parliamentary briefing from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security notes, in the west, including Australia, business people are generally positive, while strategists “have been less sanguine” about China’s BRI ambitions.
The briefing also notes that the Australian government signed its own MOU with China over the BRI, “established to promote Chinese engagement in the Australian economy”.
But the link to details of this Memorandum of Understanding in the briefing appears to have been removed.
In May 2017, then-trade minister Steven Ciobo attended a BRI forum in Beijing.
He said then that “Australia supports the aims of initiatives such as the Belt and Road that improve infrastructure development and increased opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region”.
In August 2018, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he “looked forward to working with China on BRI projects”.
“Global infrastructure investment is a good example of where countries should work together,” he said.
And as recently as November 2018, the University of Technology’s Australia-China Relations Institute notes, newly minted Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in an interview with a Beijing-based business magazine:
“‘Australia welcomes the contribution the Belt and Road Initiative can make in meeting the infrastructure needs of the region.
“And we’re keen to strengthen engagement with China in regional trade and infrastructure developments that align within the international standards of governance and transparency.”
So why is Daniel Andrews now copping it from the federal government over Victoria’s determination to stick by its BRI agreement with China?
The deal the Labor Victorian government has struck with China last year is non-legally binding.
And it allows the state’s engineering and design firms to bid for contracts for belt and road initiative projects around the world.
It also involves the Chinese government encouraging its country’s building firms to establish a presence in Victoria and bid for state government infrastructure projects.
Opposition leader Michael O’Brien has slammed the deal.
He has cited Beijing’s recent slapping of an 80.5 per cent tariff on Australian barley as evidence China does not have Australia’s best interests at heart.
“This is not about trade, this is not about jobs…this is all about political influence,” he told reporters on Monday.
The barley tariff came close on the heels of China’s decision to suspend beef imports from four major Australian meatworks.
Both the barley and beef actions came after Australia’s push for an independent investigation into COVID-19, believed to have had its origins in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
The actions also come against the backdrop of protests as Hongkongers fight to maintain the island city’s semi-autonomous status from mainland China.
This could explain why the Coalition federal government is downplaying its previous praise for the BRI, while criticising the Labor leader in Victoria for his steadfast support of the initiative.
Andrews insists he is not turning a blind eye to China’s human rights record.
‘We don’t agree with China on everything.’
He says he supports Australia’s statement supporting the US, UK and Canada, in the countries’ joint criticism of China seeking to introduce new security laws that would effectively turn Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters into terrorists.
“We don’t agree with China on everything,” Andrews said on Tuesday.
“But if you want a good trading relationship, if you want to send more Victorian-made product to China, to create jobs here in Victoria, then a good relationship on the things you can agree on is very, very important.”
By Kelly Burke