research / Research reports

Decision time: Australia's engagement with China's Belt and Road Initiative

November 09 2017

Executive summary

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was launched as a signature initiative of Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013. China contends that the aim of the BRI is to enhance regional connectivity across five dimensions – infrastructure, policy, finance, trade and people-to-people links. The BRI was written into the charter of the Chinese Communist Party at the 19th Party Congress in Beijing in October 2017, indicating that it will remain a focal point for China’s foreign policy and its international economic outreach beyond the end of Xi’s second term in 2022. 

The Australian government has yet to formulate a policy on BRI engagement. To date the response has been limited to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with China on cooperation with Australian companies on BRI projects in third-party countries. 

Australia and China are also reportedly currently considering forming a working group to further explore other types of cooperation on the BRI, although the formation of the group is still in the planning stage.

This paper critically reviews the four major points of debate on deepening Australian engagement with the BRI. 

1. The geostrategic outcomes of the BRI
The first is that Australia should keep its distance because the BRI has the potential to promote a geostrategic outcome unfavourable to its security ally, the United States. The major driver of geostrategic shifts in the Asia-Pacific region is China’s steadily increasing economic power. Short of the US and its allies, partners and friends adopting an active China containment strategy, this trend is likely to continue, irrespective of the BRI, although the BRI may accelerate it. There is a possibility that the US will lean on Australia to sign up to alternatives to the BRI. Should Australia opt to deepen engagement with the BRI, it could – and should – also participate in other initiatives that have a clear economic justification.

2. The BRI in China’s policymaking tradition
Another reported Australian government concern is that the BRI lacks a detailed roadmap outlining a pipeline of projects and this prevents meaningful participation in practice. However, in a Chinese policy-making tradition, at this stage the BRI is chiefly a concept, an invitation to cooperate, and has flexibility deliberately built in. This flexibility provides opportunities for creative Australian diplomacy to advance the national interest. Australian companies participating in BRI projects in third-party countries is only one way that cooperation might proceed.  Australia could also use the BRI to pursue greater connectivity with China’s rapidly growing economy in areas not covered by the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA), subject to national interest and national security considerations. For example, Australia could seek to harness the political capital that China is staking on the BRI to upgrade the three decade-old investment treaty that exists between two countries. 

3. The BRI’s transparency and governance standards
China’s mixed track record on transparency, governance and local participation on overseas investments is another reason sometimes provided for why the Australian government should not more actively engage with the BRI. Australia has a clear national interest in supporting initiatives that result in strong development outcomes, pushing for adherence to principles of transparency and the implementation of a strong governance framework. At the same time, as the BRI’s main sponsor, China has financial and reputational incentives to promote the BRI’s effectiveness and long-term likelihood of success. The BRI will go ahead with or without Australia. More active Australian engagement with the BRI might assist in achieving better governance and development outcomes. For example, the financial resources China is willing to commit to the BRI could be used to leverage Australian funds and project evaluation expertise in a boost for regional aid and development. And Chinese investments in Australia, whether badged as part of the BRI or not, will still need to go through Australia’s rigorous foreign investment approvals regime. The Australian Treasurer retains the prerogative to reject bids they deem contrary to the national interest. The BRI does not bind Australia to China to the exclusion of an open, competitive bidding process for greenfield or brownfield investments. It may, however, act to increase Chinese interest and the value of Australian assets, and in some cases, Chinese companies may emerge as the only bidders. 

4. The question of how the BRI benefits Australia
Limited economic benefits have also been cited as justification for hesitation on Australia’s part. Australia already has extensive trade and investment ties with China and as a high-income country with a solid credit rating attracting funding at competitive interest rates is, in a general sense, not difficult. Exactly how much new money China is putting on the table for the BRI is also not clear. Yet the fact that trade with China was already booming did not stop the Australian government from actively pursuing initiatives such as ChAFTA. And some Australian regions do struggle to attract the investment needed to support local jobs, as the government’s own Northern Development Strategy makes plain. There is also a regional dimension to Australia’s national interest with many emerging economies in the Asia-Pacific unable to secure the financing needed for infrastructure upgrading. For its part, Australia’s business sector has encouraged the government to take a more proactive stance on BRI engagement.

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

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