Australia passes new law, Belt and Road agreement may be cancelled

Australia’s parliament on Tuesday (Dec. 8) empowered the federal government to cancel agreements between local governments and foreign countries that conflict with national interests, despite China’s warnings against undermining cooperation between the two countries.

Victoria, Australia’s second most populous state, signed a framework agreement with China to jointly promote the Belt and Road project, one of 135 agreements with 30 countries around the world under the Belt and Road program. The federal government has decided that it needs to review the agreement.

Australia’s Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told reporters about the agreement, “We didn’t agree at the outset, and we still don’t. There’s no question that we’ll be reviewing it at the appropriate time. There is no doubt that we will make a decision on that at the appropriate time.”

The latest law passed by Congress allows the federal government to review and cancel deals made by states, territories, local councils and public universities with foreign countries. Foreign Minister Marise Payne has the power to evaluate agreements between all levels of government or between public universities and foreign governments to see if they are consistent with foreign policy objectives.

When the empowerment was first proposed in August, the Chinese Foreign Ministry warned against undermining “successful practical cooperation” with Victoria. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said: “The Australian side should look at the China-Australia cooperation and the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative objectively and rationally, and should not place artificial barriers to normal exchanges and cooperation between China and Australia.

Then China-Australia relations deteriorated further. China’s General Administration of Customs announced Monday that it was suspending beef imports from Queensland slaughterhouse Meramist, making it the sixth supplier to be banned by China.

Australia has supported a source investigation into the Xin Guan outbreak that began in Wuhan, China, sparking a diplomatic dispute and trade war between the two countries. Last month, China’s Ministry of Commerce announced provisional anti-dumping measures in the form of a bond on Australian wine. Previously, products such as coal, barley, seafood, sugar and timber from Australia were already on China’s banned or restricted list.

More recently, Australia and China have renewed their dispute over a composite image posted on the Twitter account of Zhao Lijian, spokesperson for the Chinese Communist Party’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The image depicts an Australian soldier holding a knife to the neck of an Afghan child as a jab at Australian Special Forces for allegedly killing and abusing civilians in Afghanistan. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison expressed outrage and demanded an apology from the Chinese government.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian’s tweet triggered a strong reaction from Australia.

The Australian government has proposed this new power to veto foreign transactions as lawmakers grow increasingly concerned about China’s political and economic influence.

In August, Australian regulators blocked a Chinese company from acquiring the Australian beverage business of Japanese brewer Kirin on the grounds that it was “against the national interest.

In 2018, Australia passed a national security statute that prohibits foreign governments from covertly interfering in domestic politics. The Chinese government protested that these laws were biased against China and hurt China-Australia relations.

Australian Foreign Minister Payne said a task force will be established under her department to review international agreements under the new law. She said in a statement: “This legislation is necessary to properly manage and protect Australia’s foreign relations and the consistency of our foreign policy.”