RELATIONS BETWEEN AUSTRALIA and China, already at a low ebb, sank lower with the federal government in Canberra’s nixing of two agreements reached by the state government of Victoria with China in 2018 and 2019 to join the Belt and Road Initiative, albeit in an unspecified way.
This was the first use of legislation that Canberra passed in December to increase federal government oversight of subnational deals with foreign governments. The law was primarily framed to counter China’s activities in Australian universities, for which China is their largest source of international students, but reflected the federal government’s broader concerns with Beijing’s growing economic and political influence in the country.
The Morrison government is casting the decision on the Victorian deals in national security terms rather than the latest move in its current disputes with Beijing, saying it has also vetoed agreements with Iran and Syria, though those dated to 2004 and 1999, respectively.
Nevertheless, the Chinese ambassador in Canberra said the decision would cause further damage to bilateral relations. These have been strained for some years, particularly over trade, but soured noticeably after Australia fronted Western calls for an independent investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Australia is showing a willingness to stand up to Beijing, which appears to target it as a proxy for more powerful Western allies. Earlier this week, Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton said that his country would not surrender to threats of retaliation. drawing a testy reaction from Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian about it being preposterous that Australia was playing the victim.