The release of Victoria’s Memorandum of Understanding with Beijing over the controversial One Belt One Road initiative has received strong reaction from the Coalition.
- The MOU talks mostly about ‘friendship’ and cooperation between China and Victoria
- It is not legally binding and can be terminated by either party
- Canberra is against signing up to the 1B1R and is cautious of China’s activity in the Pacific
The MOU was signed on October 8 and on request from Beijing kept a secret by the Andrews Government; but with pressure from the Coalition and a November 24 election looming, the document has been made public.
One Belt One Road is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plan to build a vast network of trade routes across the globe with high-speed rail into Europe, massive shipping ports throughout Asia and the Pacific, and free trade agreements with dozens of nations.
But after all the fuss and concern over the One Belt One Road initiative, what is actually in the document, what does it mean for Victoria, and why had Australia been reluctant to sign up to the trade deal in the past?
Has Australia signed up?
Australia’s official stance, which was formed under Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop, remains against being part of the divisive trillion-dollar One Belt One Road investment initiative.
So understandably, Victoria’s move to sign the deal came as a bit of a shock when it was announced on October 25, because — as Prime Minister Scott Morrison pointed out last week — foreign policy isn’t really a state area.
At this stage almost 70 countries have signed up to support the initiative, including our close neighbours Papua New Guinea and New Zealand.
Last year the Federal Labor Party hinted that Australia could join the Belt and Road initiative under a future Labor government, with Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen saying Labor is keeping an “open mind” on dealing with Beijijng.
So what has Victoria signed up to exactly?
Effectively, the MOU is a commitment by Victoria to work together with Beijing on future projects for the benefit of both parties.
It’s fairly loose on detail, but there’s a lot in the MOU about “cooperation” and “promoting the Silk Road spirit” in Victoria.
The document details that Beijing and the Victorian Government are going to work together “with the aim of promoting connectivity of policy, infrastructure, trade finance and people” and seek ways to “inject new momentum” into “beneficial cooperation for common development“.
According to the MOU, the two parties will also enhance “unimpeded trade” — but as international trade is a federal issue, this does not amount to an actual Free Trade Agreement.
But Victoria is already a strong trade partner for Beijing.
In the last four years Victoria has tripled its share of Chinese investment in Australia, and nearly doubled Victorian exports to China, according to Mr Andrews.
Is Victoria locked in already?
Not really, the MOU is not an official commitment by Victoria to any Chinese-funded projects.
The document itself lays it out very clearly: “This MOU does not create legal relations or constitute a legally binding agreement between the parties”.
And in releasing the MOU to the public on Sunday, Mr Andrews made that point very clear.
“The MOU does not bind Victoria to be involved in any specific project or initiative,” the Government said in a statement.
“As it always does, the Government will consider both the Victorian and national interest before agreeing to be involved in any specific activity.”
According to the MOU, the agreement will last for five years, but can be terminated by either party with three months’ notice.
Why was Australia reluctant to sign up before?
China is an important trade partner for Australia, but Mr Xi’s ambitious economic initiative has raised eyebrows in Canberra.
Senior national security figures warned of serious “strategic” consequences if Australia formally signs up, and it is no secret that the Government is concerned about China’s rapid expansion into the Pacific region on the heels of One Belt One Road.
While only PNG is officially on board in the Pacific, China is laying the groundwork to add to that, with further investment in the region.
Their FTA website lists Fiji as having a deal “under consideration” and, according to the Lowy Institute, China has invested more than $2.3 billion in the Pacific since 2006 in the form of projects, loans and aid.
And even on Australian shores, there have been examples of One Belt One Road projects popping up unbeknownst to many.
For example, earlier this year a Chinese developer’s planned Queensland theme park appeared as a “key cultural trade and investment project” that upon deeper reading, also appeared linked to the Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road investment plan.
But despite the Federal Government’s strategic and geopolitical concerns, the Andrews Government sees Chinese expansion as an important opportunity for the state.
“It means more trade and more Victorian jobs and an even stronger relationship with China,” he said, in announcing the MOU on October 25.
He said that his Government’s focus on delivering large-scale infrastructure projects provides “the design and delivery skills China is looking for”.
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