Belt and Road More ‘Dangerous’ for Victorian State Government Than COVID-19: Former Premier

Updated: 2020-07-14 15:16:07

A former leader of Victoria has criticised the state’s Belt and Road agreement with Beijing saying it will be the “undoing” of the current Labor government, and more serious than the recent COVID-19 spike in the state.

“Even with COVID, the most dangerous aspect for this Labor government is this deal that they have signed with another government which has an expansionist policy,” the former state Premier Jeff Kennett told Sky News on July 13.

“The Belt and Road policy will be the undoing of this government more than any other act we are facing,” he added.

The current premier of Victoria Daniel Andrews has signed two agreements with Beijing’s National Development and Reform Commission: a Memorandum of Understanding in 2018 and a Framework Agreement in 2019.

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Workers inspect railway tracks, which serve as a part of the Belt and Road Initiative freight rail route linking Chongqing to Duisburg, at the Dazhou railway station in Sichuan Province, China, on March 14, 2019. (Reuters)

The agreement has received intense criticism in recent months—with state, federal and international political figures weighing in.

The criticism has focused on national security concerns and increased scepticism of Australia–China relations, which have deteriorated in the wake of Beijing’s response to the foreign minister’s calls for an investigation into the origins of the pandemic.

Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas at the time criticised the federal government for “vilifying” China, while the Victorian Premier remained firm in his support for BRI claiming it was about “growing jobs for Victorians.”

Kennett (state premier from 1992 – 1999) responded to the premier’s assertion saying that while on the one hand Victoria was engaged with Beijing’s BRI, on the other, the Australian federal government has been tied down by an ongoing trade dispute instigated by Beijing.

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“The same Chinese government that he has signed to support in their expansionist policies, is the same government that is refusing to take the barley from Victorian farmers.

“It’s the same government that is giving advice to its population not to visit Australia, and it’s certainly the same government that is stopping its students from coming to our universities,” he said.

The BRI has attracted controversy over concerns Beijing is using the program to expand its influence via “debt-trap diplomacy” that mainly targets developing nations.

For example, in 2017 the Sri Lankan government had to hand over 70 percent control of its Hambantota Port to a Chinese-state owned firm (for 99 years) after it was unable to service a $1.3 billion loan from China.

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A general view of the port facility at Hambantota, Sri Lanka, on Feb. 10, 2015. (Lakruwan WanniarachchiAFP/Getty Images)

Clive Hamilton, a professor of public ethics and author of “Silent Invasion”—a book which details Beijing’s influence efforts in Australia—wrote in The Age on May 23 that the Victorian government’s championing of BRI was a success for the Chinese Community Party (CCP).

He argued that attitudes toward the CCP in Sydney and Canberra have hardened in recent years, typified by the ban on Huawei and the downfall of New South Wales Senator Sam Dastyari. The CCP has instead focused on “ramping up” influence activities in other states—Western Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, and Victoria.

Hamilton drew comparisons with a communist tactic called “using the countryside to surround the city.” The tactic became well known when the CCP employed it against the ruling Nationalist government in China during the 1930s.

The CCP was unable to defeat the Nationalist Army in the cities, so retreated to the countryside to build its strength. Later when the Nationalist Army was weakened after defending China from Japanese forces during World War II, the CCP re-emerged and seized the country.

In the 1960s, Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot adopted the tactic to usurp the Cambodian government after he learned it from the CCP.

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