Australia is planning to pass legislation that allows the federal government to veto all decisions made by Australian entities regarding foreign relations. This gives Foreign Minister Marise Payne the authority to cancel arrangements made by state and local governments, as well as by universities.
There is concern that this decision will damage Australia’s relationship with China. Despite the bill applying to all foreign relations, a vast 27 of the 42 agreements coming under review involve China.
Most discussed is the Belt and Road initiative. The State of Victoria has decided to sign up to China’s controversial Belt and Road initiative, a project which China insists is to expand its global infrastructure network. It has received much criticism from the federal government and from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who claims it gives China an increased ability to ‘do harm’. This relates to beliefs that China is providing the initiative to countries with poor credit ratings and creating a ‘debt trap’ to those countries who fail to pay them back. Sri Lanka’s government were unable to repay the loans that China had provided, leading to China now owning Sri Lanka’s second largest port.
Coronavirus has left Victoria with large debts and therefore is potentially vulnerable to strategic influence by China if they decide to take part in the initiative. However, due to the recent foreign relations legislation, this could now be cancelled by the federal government.
There has been antipathy between China and Australia since Canberra questioned China’s handling of Covid-19. Subsequently, China placed an 80 per cent tariff on Australian barley, suspended Australian beef imports, and discouraged travelling to Australia. If the federal government decided to pull out of the Belt and Road project, Sino-Australian relations are at risk of being eroded further, potentially with detrimental economic effects.
Chinese-government run Universities such as Confucius Institutes may be put under a microscope as they are now obliged to notify the commonwealth government of all agreements made with foreign governments.
Previously, Chinese influence operations in Australia have been documented by both Australian Strategic Policy Institute researchers and the BBC, who reported on attempts by a Chinese businessman, purportedly connected to the Chinese government, to influence the position of the Australian Labor Party on China’s claim to the South China Sea via conditional donations.
PM Scott Morrison spoke about the potential bill and emphasized the importance of Australia being seen to ‘speak with one voice’ and ‘act in accordance with one plan’. He also affirmed that protecting Australia’s interests is the ‘primary job of the federal government’. The bill allows the federal government to prohibit arrangements that do not fulfil this requirement.
Morrison remains clear that the obligation of notifying the federal government of arrangements will help to create an atmosphere of transparency between the commonwealth government and local governments and institutes.