China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is inspired by the ancient Silk Road, which stimulated trade and cultural exchange for thousands of miles between China and Europe. Quite whether the merchants of old ever reached Australia is open to question, although that didn’t discourage the state government of Victoria, which signed up to the BRI’s reinterpretation of the silk routes three years ago
The deals – effectively commitments to work with the Chinese government on infrastructure projects under the BRI banner – were outliers in a period in which the Sino-Australian relationship has disintegrated alarmingly. But relations then turned even more rancorous last week when Australian foreign minister Marise Payne said that the federal government was cancelling Victoria’s BRI deals.
Payne terminated both deals, along with two older agreements between the Victorian government and Iranian and Syrian entities, claiming that they were “inconsistent with Australia’s foreign policy or adverse to our foreign relations”.
“This is another unreasonable and provocative move taken by the Australian side against China,” the Chinese embassy in Canberra protested immediately. “It further shows that the Australian government has no sincerity in improving China-Australia relations.”
The federal government introduced new legislation in December allowing it to veto agreements at lower levels of government. But the timing of the cancellation coincided with a trip by Payne to New Zealand, which is said to have reservations about the more hawkish stance being adopted towards the Chinese by the ‘Five Eyes’ security coalition (New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the US and the UK). The Global Times immediately drew a link between the two events, claiming that Payne’s decision was timed to send a strong signal to the Kiwis. “Australia doesn’t care about its relationship with China anymore,” the newspaper added.
The same theme echoed through the Chinese media, with the Economic Observer describing Australia’s behaviour as “capricious” and adding that it had “blatantly” torn up the deal with Victoria because it has “tied itself to America’s anti-Chinese chariot”. Netizens generally agreed, with the most-liked comment under the same Economic Observer article urging that “Australia should pay the price”.
“Friends shake hands but enemies use firearms,” another popular response urged. “We should mete out the heaviest punishment for Canberra’s anti-Chinese stance and make them regret what they’ve done”.
The Chinese media was also of the view that ordinary Australians are displeased by the damage being done to relations between the two countries.
However, that doesn’t seem to be the case if some of the comments on Australian social media are anything to go by. Daniel Andrews, Victoria’s premier, has been derided as “desperate Dan” or “dumpling Dan” for cozying up to China, and he and his state treasurer Tim Pallas have also been described as “out of their league” in their dealings with the Chinese government. “They think that China views them as economically important instead of as a couple of toy foreign officials they can drag out and show the world when they need a couple of useful stooges,” one Aussie netizen fumed.
Parts of the nation’s press took a similar line, with The Australian newspaper lamenting that Andrews had made a terrible mistake in signing the agreement with the Chinese in the first place. “He set aside the brutality of the Communist regime, compartmentalised the human rights abuses of the Uighurs and turned his back on the repression of the democratic protests in Hong Kong. This was all about investment and jobs, and nothing else mattered,” it complained
There were also demands for further action, with calls for the government to reassess the granting of a 99-year lease for Darwin’s port operations to a Chinese firm. “That should be torn up,” urged Jacqui Lambie, a Tasmanian senator. “It’s about time we had a good look at that Port of Darwin because if anything goes on in the future you can guarantee we are going to need to be operating from there,” she proclaimed.
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