Federal government quashes Victoria’s foreign deals

| April 23, 2021

The Australian government has cancelled Victoria’s Belt and Road Initiative agreement with China.

In the first decisions under the government’s new law allowing it to quash arrangements states, territories and public universities have, or propose to have, with foreign governments, Foreign Minister Marise Payne announced four Victorian agreements would end.

Two are with China and the others are with Iran and Syria.

The agreements with China are the memorandum of understanding on the Belt and Road Initiative signed in October 2018, and a subsequent more detailed framework agreement signed in October 2019.

The agreement with Iran related to student exchanges and dates from 2004. The protocol with Syria was for scientific cooperation and goes back to 1999.

Payne, who makes the determinations under the foreign arrangements scheme, said the agreements were ‘inconsistent with Australia’s foreign policy or adverse to our foreign relations’ under the scheme’s test.

The action drew another sharp response from China, which is extensively targeting Australian trade and regularly delivers rhetorical attacks.

A statement from a Chinese embassy spokesperson condemned the cancellation of the agreements as ‘provocative’ and expressed ‘strong displeasure and resolute opposition’ to Payne’s announcement.

‘The BRI is an initiative for economic cooperation, which follows the principle of extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits, and upholds the spirit of openness, inclusiveness and transparency,’ the spokesperson said.

‘It has brought tangible benefits to the participating parties. The BRI cooperation between China and the Victoria state is conducive to deepening economic and trade relations between the two sides and will promote economic growth and the well-being of the people of Victoria.’

The statement said this was ‘another unreasonable and provocative move taken by the Australian side against China.

‘It further shows that the Australian government has no sincerity in improving China–Australia relations. It is bound to bring further damage to bilateral relations and will only end up hurting itself.’

The Victorian buy-in to the BRI—China’s global infrastructure and development strategy—was seen as the prime target when the government first announced its plan to review the agreements with foreign governments and their entities.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last year about the BRI that it was a program Australia’s foreign policy did not recognise ‘because we don’t believe it is consistent with Australia’s national interest’.

The foreign arrangements scheme, operating since December, was driven substantially by concern about foreign interference in Australia, in particular from China.

It also reflects the broader principle that foreign relations are a national matter and agreements by states and territories with foreign governments should not be at odds with the federal government’s policies.

Federal sources say the Victorian agreements with China have not yielded any tangible outcomes for the state.

The agreements with Iran and Syria have been overtaken by major changes in relations with those countries.

Payne said under the audits of existing and proposed foreign arrangements required by the new law, she had been notified of more than 1,000 arrangements.

‘States and territories have now completed their initial audit of existing arrangements with foreign national governments.

‘The more than 1,000 notified so far reflect the richness and breadth of Australia’s international interests and demonstrate the important role played by Australia’s states, territories, universities and local governments in advancing Australia’s interests abroad.’

A spokesperson for the Victorian government said the law was ‘entirely a matter for the Commonwealth government’.

Payne has approved a proposed memorandum of understanding between the Western Australian and Indonesian governments.

This article was published by The Strategist.   Another version of this piece was originally published in The Conversation.

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