The Guardian • Issue #1959

Australia scraps BRI agreements, eager to injure relationship with number one trade partner

The Morrison government has vetoed the state of Victoria by cancelling four agreements it had with other nations relating to cooperation and education. Two of the agreements were made with China as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the others with Syria and Iran. It is no coincidence that the countries are deemed to be enemies by the United States, and it is clear that Australia’s government chooses to fall in line with its US puppet-master, rather than making decisions that benefit the Australian economy or its people. While a broad campaign to demonise China makes it near impossible to build diplomacy and understanding, the general Australian public continue to lose opportunities.

Two of the cancelled agreements were made long before the current Victorian administration. The Protocol of Scientific Cooperation was an agreement between Syria and Victoria made way back in 1999, and encouraged scholarships, and shared research. In 2004, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was made between Iran and Victoria’s education department, mainly for the purposes of teacher professional development. It wasn’t until 2018 that the current Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews signed an MOU as part of China’s BRI, and then a framework agreement in 2019.

Andrews attended the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF) in Beijing in 2017 as the only subnational leader from Australia. The premier describes that the visit aligned with “the Victorian Government’s vision for Victoria to become China’s gateway to Australia.” The event was China’s highest profile economic and diplomatic event of the year, hosted by President Xi Jinping with over 1,500 delegates from over 130 nations, including 29 foreign heads of state and government leaders, heads of the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The non-legally binding MOU signed by Andrews in 2018 is basically centred on finding new opportunities for China and Victoria to cooperate in developing infrastructure, and to create the ability for businesses and organisations on both sides to more easily make partnerships and investments.

The framework agreement signed in 2019 was developed by a working group co-chaired by Andrews and China’s National Development and Reform Commission Vice Chairman, Ning Jizhe, which delves deeper into specific needs for Victoria, including boosting trade in agriculture, food, and cosmetics, therefore creating job opportunities. China would build Victorian infrastructure and discuss ongoing shared interests such as high-end manufacturing, biotechnology, agricultural technology, innovation, training and how to deal with an ageing population.

Although Western talking points may describe these agreements as “debt-trap diplomacy” as dubbed by former-US Vice President, Mike Pence, the fear mongering and propaganda campaign is no match for reality. One scathing story about the BRI which vastly dominated the Western sphere was in relation to a port development in Sri Lanka, which was misrepresented, by not including all of the facts about the situation, namely that the debt accounted for just five per cent of Sri Lanka’s total unpayable debt.

This one example is used to discredit the BRI even though there are an overwhelming number of success stories across the world. The BRI is massive – the total investment is equivalent to sixty-two per cent of global GDP, impacts seventy countries and 4.8bil people. Ports in Greece, the Netherlands, and Germany have been further developed to create thousands of jobs, boost local economies, and increase flow of people and products. Rail links from France to Malaysia reduce transport time by avoiding sea freight, and allow more ability to exchange special products like French wine, agricultural products and car parts. Luxembourg and China have an agreement that allows time-sensitive products like fresh fruit and pharmaceuticals to be flown in.

Hydroelectricity plants have gone up in developing nations like Uganda, providing electricity to millions. And it’s not just infrastructure for trade that the BRI invests in, but also the ability for countries to share expertise to better develop systems for enhanced prosperity.

China has created exceptional opportunities for countries in the Global South and the Global North. Even the northern US state of Alaska dubbed the years from 2000 to 2011 as the “Dragon Decade,” when it took advantage of the Chinese market to invest in Alaskan natural resource commodities – trade skyrocketed from $100mil to a phenomenal $1.5bil.

So why would Australia force Victoria out of such an opportunity? Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne has announced that the move was not intended to target China, but to maintain a “consistent approach to foreign policy” – which is actually to contain China. Australia remains in lock-step with US foreign policy, helping maintain US hegemony and imperialism, and this sentiment has done nothing but ramp up in recent years.

Australian soldiers have murdered innocent civilians in Afghanistan, and have supported the US in destruction and bloodshed in Iraq and Syria. It is no wonder that the Australian federal government also cancelled a Syrian and Iranian agreement, to maintain this “consistent approach.”

The national scheme was developed just last year in December in response to Andrews’ cooperative approach to China, giving the Commonwealth the power to veto deals between states and territories with foreign entities.

As countries across the world with varying political systems latch on to the BRI and work towards developing stronger ties with China for mutual advantage and developing understanding, Australia sits in the past holding on tighter to the irrefutably biggest human rights abuser, the US – an empire with a thousand foreign military bases, continuing its bullying through sanctions and tariff wars, with the goal of creating a world of “blocks” once again, as the New Cold War escalates. In contrast, the state of Victoria could have boosted its economy, creating more prosperity for farmers, workers and businesses, creating more understanding and peaceful relations along the way.

And although Payne argues that the move is not intended to target China, the Chinese government, news sources and citizens alike have expressed their disappointment. Wang Yiwei, Director of the Institute of International Affairs at Renmin University of China, described the move by the Australian government as “an egregious incident where economic cooperation is undermined by politics.” Chinese news company, People’s Daily commented that “what [Australia is] doing is reversing the wheels of history, which not only gives a blow to the confidence in cooperation of the two sides […] but also seriously damages the image and reputation of Australia.”

Examples of comments from Chinese citizens on social media platform, Weibo, include “Australia has no dignity. [We] need to give them a lesson”; or “Some [countries] just don’t deserve respect”. Another user posted, “Australia is mad. Now they are determined to be the lackey of America. Where is the spirit of contracts?” While spokesperson for the US and Defence funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), Albert Zhang, speculated that the comments were unlikely “organic” due to Weibo’s connections to the Communist Party of China, it seems somewhat naive to suggest that Chinese citizens would not have some kind of emotional response to the provocative decision.

Additionally, Chinese users on Facebook page, 21SilkRd, have posted similar opinions in response to the BRI agreement cancellation. Comments to the sentiment of “they are digging their grave deeper and deeper,” “it’s their loss,” “it’s a major mistake,” or “let them be isolated” dominate the comments section. It is important to analyse which is more believable – speculation coming from ASPI, a think tank literally funded by US weapons manufacturers, or comments from everyday Chinese citizens. Those who prefer to think the citizens are brainwashed clearly have a discriminatory attitude towards Chinese people.

People’s Daily comments that “on one hand, [Australia] hopes to destroy the bilateral relationship with China. On the other hand, they are dreaming of making a fortune by riding on China’s train of fast development. Does this really make sense?” This is an important question for consideration, and there is a vast divide in the Australian ruling class about the rising political tensions, and Australian companies missing out on being part of China’s win-win strategies which would help them grow and develop.

It’s a dangerous move to pull out of these agreements, and its possible China will start looking to trade more with cooperative nations, especially in regards to iron ore exports – a huge proportion of Australia’s GDP. It is not economic coercion coming from China, as some Australian outlets have described it, but a rational decision to trade with less provocative and more respectful countries.

It is not good enough to base trade relations on human rights violations, especially when the majority of these talking points are also coming from US-backed think tanks, and are vastly complex internal issues to which China is dealing with carefully. Australia should look to itself – to its war crimes, indigenous deaths in custody, and treatment of refugees, and stop behaving with a supposed moral high ground.

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