Australia tearing up formal Belt and Road deal has little exemplary effect
Published: Apr 22, 2021 07:26 PM

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne announced on Wednesday that the federal government would override the Victorian state government's decision to sign up to the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  National security reasons were cited. 

The move will further plummet the already sour China-Australia relations to a new low. Some Australian experts believe Canberra could have just let the deal lapse and not approve new agreements. But it chose to scrap the deal at this time. This truly shows that Australia does not care about its relations with China anymore. 

Australia obviously wants to send a signal to the international community and set an example to the other countries which have been cooperating with China under the BRI framework. Among these countries, its close neighbor New Zealand is the first target for this provocation. 

Payne's announcement to cancel the deal came as she was visiting New Zealand. There has been much media coverage about the divergences between Australia and New Zealand in their handling of China-related affairs. Australia was apparently annoyed by New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta's recent remarks that the country was "uncomfortable with expanding the remit of the Five Eyes." There was anger over Wellington making its independent foreign policy. This is a stark contrast to the Australian way of attaching itself tight on the US' anti-China crusade. 

Indeed, just four months ago in January, Australia also fumed after New Zealand's trade minister suggesting that the country could mend ties with China by showing its government more "respect." 

Taking her stay in New Zealand as a chance to make the announcement, Payne hopes to sound an alarm bell to Wellington. Australia has long held a sense of superiority over New Zealand as it assumes a more ambitious posture toward a greater regional leadership role. It hopes New Zealand will follow it closely. 

Some Western scholars believe Wellington is the West's "woke weak link" regarding its role to contain China. In essence, New Zealand's core values are of no difference in comparison to other countries of the Five Eyes alliance. But the geographical situation of New Zealand sharply differs from that of Australia. The "neighborhood" of New Zealand is Australia and Pacific islands. But Australia is situated close to Southeast Asia. So their interests in the region also differ.

Wellington is pragmatic. It has signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding on the BRI. It is always willing to participate in the BRI in a third country. This includes offering consulting services to Chinese companies in Pacific countries. But New Zealand is also wary of China's increasing influence in countries such as Fiji.

Australia's moves will pile more pressure on New Zealand. But Wellington's foreign policy tends to be stable. Given its position in the international order, Australia will not affect New Zealand's diplomacy unless Wellington thinks that the BRI would pose a national security threat to it. But this possibility is small. Wellington has a clear awareness of its geopolitical situation. It knows it is a country that depends on China in terms of trade.

As a loyal follower of the US, Australia is not being wise with its China dealings. Almost every country, which unwarrantedly fears China's influence but highly depends on China, is well aware of this fact. Australia can hardly serve as an example to these countries. Nor can it strong-arm others who have BRI deals with China to back out just because of the Morrison administration. 

Whereas Pacific island countries are still in the strategic sphere of Australia, some of them may take a wait-and-see attitude toward joining the BRI. China's trade measures against Australia have already made it feel the pain. In the wake of Australia's cancellation of the BRI deals, China can engage more with BRI participant countries to work out more successful projects as showcase. It will be more effective than countermeasures as Australia watches from the sidelines while BRI projects bring economic opportunities to other countries, boosting their relations with China in ways the Morrison government totally misjudged. 

The author is an associate researcher at the School of International Relations, Sichuan University, and also a researcher at the Pacific Research Center of Beijing Foreign Studies University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn