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Australia and the Belt and Road Initiative: A survey of developments 2013-September 2017

December 31 2017

On September 7 2013 at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University, Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time outlined a vision for an overland ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ connecting Central Asia and China’s western provinces. In an address to the Indonesian Parliament in October 2013, President Xi announced the development of a ‘New Maritime Silk Road’ spanning Southeast Asia. These two initiatives were then linked at a Chinese Communist Party Central Committee conference that same month, with President Xi delivering an address on China’s diplomacy with its neighbouring countries and stating that they should cooperate to ‘accelerate infrastructure connectivity, to build [the] Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road’. The Chinese government undertook a number of rebranding exercises, finally settling on the term ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) in 2016. 

Australia is not part of the 65 countries geographically located on the overland Belt and the maritime Road, but this does not preclude participation. Indeed, in a speech to the Australian parliament on November 17 2014, President Xi formally invited Australia to participate in the BRI, stating, ‘Oceania is a natural extension of the ancient maritime Silk Road and China welcomes Australia’s participation in the 21st century maritime Silk Road.’ 

Australia has welcomed the BRI on one level, and reserved engagement with it on another. Moreover, the BRI has been slow to permeate the Australian public consciousness with one former federal government minister commenting, ‘I find in Australia 99 percent of people wouldn’t have a clue what you’re talking about if you said Belt and Road.’ But as the initiative has gained momentum on the global stage, so too has domestic debate as to whether or not Australia should participate – and how. This chapter surveys the Australian response to the BRI, from its announcement in 2013 to the time of writing (September 2017). Developments in the debate across federal government, federal opposition, state governments, business, academia and media will be explored. 

Note: This chapter was published in Sun Youzhong and Han Feng, eds. Blue Book of Australia: Annual report on development of Australia (2016-2017). Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press, December 2017, pp. 193-222.

Authors: Elena Collinson, Senior Project and Research Officer, Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney; Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, Project and Research Support Officer, Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney.