Hidden Costs: Victoria’s Belt & Road Deal Undermines Australia


All care and no responsibility: with no mandate Victoria sets precedent with China

If you can’t go through, go around is a common Chinese saying that some Australian state governments are currently embracing to enrich themselves, while taking no responsibility or bearing any cost for their actions.

Signing international treaties (deals) with foreign governments is essentially a national responsibility. This is because the implications of any deal with a foreign government are always more complex and widespread than just the amounts to be traded and market access granted. The Australian Government has more experience than most in pursuing and managing free trade deals, and yet decided against joining China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI).

Undermining the national position for almost two years since signing the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with China, Premier Daniel Andrews proceeded against the advice of the Australian Government and signed the State of Victoria up to China’s BRI.

What does this deal entail and how will it affect the rest of Australia?

Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) director, Michael Shoebridge recently noted that this new deal could see Andrews “signing up to bring a whole set of Chinese communications, control and ­collection technologies along with this big build.” Chinese cyber-espionage linked to the BRI is increasing, a recent threat report from United States cyber security company FireEye states, citing experts’ warnings that Beijing is using the infrastructure project to “spy on companies and countries as well as to damp down dissent.”      

Could defence industry projects be at risk in Victoria?

FireEye’s analysis detailed a cyber-espionage operation using the BRI as cover, aimed at crucial technologies and traditional intelligence targets from a China-nexus state sponsored actor specifically targeting engineering, transportation, and the defense industry. Crucially for shipbuilding, the report found this is especially profound where these sectors overlap with maritime technologies. With this as just one possibility, how could the Australian Government support the increased risk of awarding defense (or any sensitive) business to Victoria? Why would any company risk doing business in this kind of environment? 

It appears that Premier Andrews has just encouraged more cyber hacking, more espionage and more foreign interference into the Australian community.

Who bears the cost for deploying more resources to protect against cyber-attacks, theft of IP and secrets, espionage and foreign interference? The people of New South Wales didn’t vote for this.

Without representation

Just released national polling from the Lowy Institute suggests the Australian public overwhelmingly wants no part of the BRI. The poll shows seventy-nine percent of the population believe that “China’s infrastructure investment projects across Asia are part of China’s plans for regional domination.” Seventy-seven percent agree that “Australia should do more to resist China’s military activities in our region, even if this affects our economic relationship.” This represents an increase of 11 points since 2015, right about when Premier Andrews was negotiating with China.

Treat people the way you wish to be treated

How you treat your own people is a good indicator of your behavior toward others. Freedom House recently scored China 11/100 (0 being least free) in its Freedom Score. It noted that “China’s authoritarian regime has become increasingly repressive in recent years. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is tightening its control over the state bureaucracy, the media, online speech, religious groups, universities, businesses, and civil society associations, and it has undermined its own already modest rule-of-law reforms.“

Furthermore, China is responsible for “cultural genocide,” increasing its repression and systematic abuses against the 13 million Turkic Muslims, including Uyghurs and ethnic Kazakhs, in China’s Xinjiang region the New York Times reports. Official numbers are unavailable but witnesses and right’s groups estimate that up to two million Uyghurs are being incarcerated in “internment camps.”

The national public deserves to have their say taken into consideration. The signing of “Australia” (which is how this deal was understood to mean within China) was a significant internal propaganda coup for the Chinese Communist leadership, but gross misrepresentation of the will of the Australian public.

Just a state mate – I don’t really engage at that level

However, when confronted with any of the above issues, the state premiers quickly return to the cover of provincial status. Asked to comment on criticism of China over the Uyghurs issue, Premier of Western Australia Mark McGowan said “I’m aware it’s a federal issue, I don’t really engage at that level.”

As a matter of urgency the federal government should immediately review any state government action involving a foreign entity with the potential to have national effects. A public review with findings openly discussed and debated, will ensure all Australians are aware and approve of, any actions taken (or perceived to be taken) in their name.

Lincoln Parker has been working and writing on Defence and National Security topics for over two decades in both the U.S. and Australia. With a background in both government and industry in both nations, he has a passion for international relations and the role of innovation in the Defence community. The author’s views are his own.