The Australian state of Victoria has come under heavy criticism from the nation's federal government and Washington over its determination to maintain working relations with China within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Victoria's Premier Daniel Andrews inked a memorandum of understanding with Beijing in 2018 in a bid to provide “more jobs and more trade and investment for Victorians”. However, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has recently crossed swords with Beijing over the US-backed coronavirus probe, stepped up criticism towards Victoria over its cooperation with China. For his part, US Secretary Mike Pompeo has threatened to "disconnect" Australia, a Five Eyes Anglophone intelligence group participant, in case Victoria gives the green light to Chinese telecom giants.
US Closes Ranks With Allies Ahead of 2020 Vote
Several hours after Pompeo's remarks, US Ambassador to Australia Arthur Culvahouse clarified that the US secretary of state had addressed a "hypothetical" scenario and admitted that he was unfamiliar with Victoria’s BRI discussions. In response, the Victoria government reiterated its commitment to create opportunities for local businesses under the Belt and Road programme and specified that no telecommunication projects have ever been agreed upon with the Chinese.
Addressing the spat over Victoria's participation in the BRI, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian denounced "the groundless accusations made by some Australian politicians" suggesting that they only "expose their negligence of the Australian people’s interests and their sinister intentions of damaging China-Australia relations".
Australia remains a critical partner for the US, and Washington is seeking to close ranks with it amid the escalating row with Beijing, according Alexander Gillespie, professor of international law at the University of Waikato in New Zealand.
"[Australia] and New Zealand are tied together by the 1951 ANZUS (Australia – New Zealand - United States) Collective Security Treaty", Gillespie says. "This ties us all together in both military and intelligence cooperation. Australia has a closer relationship to the US than New Zealand."
Besides this, Donald Trump needs "friends" right now, the professor underscores.
"With the American economy in a dire position, the need for distractions will be higher than ever as he heads towards the November 2020 election," he says. "This means that focusing on China will make sense. To which, making sure America's best friends toe the line will be equally important."
On the other hand, however, about one third of Australia's exports go to China, including 18% of the country's total beef production and 49% of barley, and this figure is growing. "It is a huge dependency - and one which will be difficult to ignore in these difficult economic times," the professor admits.
'US Ideological & Military Colonisation of Australia'
The truth of the matter is that for decades, Australia has rode "the two horses of near-total economic reliance on China and total strategic dependency on the US", explains Tony Kevin, former Australian ambassador to Poland and Cambodia.
According to the diplomat, the US-Australian defence inter-operability has grown substantially since the mid-1970s. "The dominant influence has been the American ideological and military colonisation of Australia," he remarks.
Australia hosts a permanently rotating major US Marine base in Darwin, while a "top-secret US defence facility at Pine Gap in Central Australia plays a vital role in US global strategic nuclear targeting and intelligence gathering against Russia or China," he elaborates.
Thus, it is no surprise that the Morrison government has followed Washington's suit and is now trying to build international support against the World Health Organisation (WHO) and China over their initial handling of the coronavirus pandemic, albeit contrary to Australia's own economic interests, Kevin notes.
After the Australian officials raised the issue of an international COVID-19 investigation into China "independent" of the WHO, Beijing slapped tariffs on $1 billion worth of Australian beef and barley. Still, the People's Republic and the Morrison government say that the measure is unrelated to the inquiry.
Australia is On the Horns of a Dilemma
"Australia is currently wrestling with its now-chronic dilemma: how to balance its relations with Trump’s wilful and unreliable America, and an increasingly angry number-one trade partner China," Tony Kevin observes. "As China’s diplomatic signalling towards Australia has hardened in recent weeks, Australia’s US - driven Sinophobe lobby has become more recklessly outspoken in Canberra government and mainstream media circles."
According to the diplomat, "Morrison and his ministers are daily digging deeper the hole they are in, too proud to apologise to China for their aggressive clumsiness."
He bemoans the possibility that Australia will, "despite all logic to the contrary, go on resisting any strengthening of its relations with China" while "the US-indoctrinated Australian political-strategic elite will continue to act contrary to Australia’s own best interests."
"And China will continue, regretfully, to go on slowly turning off the Australian trade tap, seeking alternative suppliers like Russia for more of its import needs. Harder times lie ahead for Australia: it will not be able to replace the Chinese market it is so wantonly taunting," the former ambassador concludes.