8 August 2018
Five years ago, China’s president, Xi Jinping, announced his “project of the century”: the Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar globe-spanning infrastructure scheme. It appeared to be a Sinocentric trade blueprint, or an attempt to extend Beijing’s influence, or a vague branding exercise – and it is probably a little bit of each.
The vision may be blurry at this stage, but the scale is magnificent. The initiative aims to create a series of overland links extending from China to Europe (the “Belt”), and sea routes from ports in and around China to Africa, Europe and South-East Asia (somewhat confusingly, the “Road”). To date, seventy-one countries have joined the scheme.
Various maps show the current plans for both the Belt and the Road. None includes Australia.
The initiative poses a challenge to Australia, which welcomes the potential boost to trade but has reservations about China’s growing regional clout. Malcolm Turnbull declined China’s invitation to include Australia’s vaguely designed $5 billion northern development plan in the scheme, but has agreed to cooperate with Beijing on construction and development projects. On Tuesday, during a speech at the University of New South Wales, he expressed support for the Belt and Road Initiative but alluded to concerns about developing countries taking on Chinese debt that they cannot repay.
For now, Turnbull’s refusal to join the initiative is more symbolic than practical. It is not yet clear how future investment will be affected. China is already Australia’s largest trading partner, and its investment in Australia has been growing, though its total share of foreign investment is minimal (about 2 per cent last year, excluding Hong Kong). Turnbull’s speech, in the presence of China’s ambassador, assured Beijing repeatedly that Canberra welcomes its infrastructure investment, even as it sounded the caution against funding unsustainable projects.
The Australian government’s approach to Xi’s initiative leaves it caught between the business community, which warns of missed opportunities, and the national security community, which worries about further tilting the region’s power balance away from Washington. Turnbull, guided by the latter, is left with a position that he cannot publicly articulate, which results in a muddled message that complicates diplomatic relations with Beijing.
This has become a consistent feature of Australia’s approach to relations with China.
Such confusion was on stark display last week as Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, revealed plans for Australia to join with the United States and Japan to set up a regional infrastructure scheme, a move widely seen as an attempt to combat the Belt and Road Initiative. There was surprisingly little detail and seemingly minimal message coordination between the three countries. Bishop’s media release spoke of a “trilateral partnership” aimed at enhancing peace and prosperity. This followed a strident speech hours earlier in Washington by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in which he pledged US$113 million on new infrastructure initiatives in Asia. The funds, said Pompeo, were a “down payment” on a new era in US economic commitment to the region.
For such ambitions, this is a trifling sum – barely enough for an Australian highway upgrade. The amount hardly seems to reflect a proposal designed to make America great again in Asia and to counter China’s infrastructure initiative. The gesture is mostly symbolic and risks fuelling tensions with Beijing, but is too insubstantial to deliver the intended benefit – a stronger United States commitment to the region.
Australia and Japan have a separate plan for combating China’s emergence as a global economic leader: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade deal that covers most of the world and, notably, excludes China. But the deal, which began with twelve nations, now also excludes the United States after US President Donald Trump rejected it.
Last Saturday, Bishop and her Japanese counterpart, foreign minister Taro Kono, met with Pompeo for three-way talks in Singapore. Her subsequent statement made no mention of the “TPP-11” (as it is now known). Nor did she add any further detail about the three-way investment scheme.
There is not much more to say about the nation’s approach to this balancing act: Trump looks inward, Xi looks outward, and Australia, struggling to find ways to respond to either, risks slipping off the map.