DANGERS OF BELT AND ROAD
By Jeff Kennett
Herald Sun First edition. Page 26, Section: General News
VICTORIA and many of its cities have long had sister city or state relationships with cities or provinces in China.
These relationships were based on friendship and developing opportunities. For instance, Victoria's sister relationship with Jiangsu Province, a community of 80 million people, was entered into in 1980. It has been an active relationship that has served both communities well, and when I was premier, I visited Jiangsu and its capital Nanjing and promoted the value of Victoria's relationship with a rapidly changing China.
The City of Melbourne has a sister city relationship with Tianjin.
Other Victorian cities and towns have similar ties, as do states and cities throughout Australia.
The biggest change in China has been the growth of the cities at the expense of rural communities, delivering social change and in many cases disruption.
Add to that the changing nature of China's economy which began under Premier Deng Xiaoping, and the opening of the Chinese economy to aspects of western society, the China of today is very different to that of 1980.
That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does put very real strains on its population given its leaders still maintain centralised control. The latter has led to some controlling aspects of Chinese life, compared to our open democracy.
Intolerance of differing views as witnessed by their human rights record, directing many activities of society, and its expansionist policies such as the military buildup in the South China Sea.
For all our differences with an emerging China, Victorians have benefited from its population's increasing travel - for business, leisure or education. We have further benefited from Chinese demand for our goods and services, such as food. And we have benefited from Chinese technology such as the tunnelling equipment being used for our infrastructure investment.
Victoria's relationship with China has been beneficial to both parties. Even more so to Australia as a whole - education, tourism, mining, and agricultural products.
All of this was secured during the normal relationships between the two countries built up over years. Of course, strains in the relationship do occur from time to time, but those challenges are usually worked through for mutual benefit.
That is why the recent decision by Premier Daniel Andrews to dramatically change a successful model of partnership is so confusing, if not alarming.
The Belt and Road policy of the Chinese government, which was announced in 2013, is basically an international expansionist policy.
China provides countries with funds to build or upgrade infrastructure in the countries that agree in return to accept such finance under the Belt and Road policy.
Substantial funds have now been provided to many countries that are either strategically important to China or can provide China with access to assets for its long-term future and security.
More than 70 countries are said to have signed up to the agreement.
If you look at the list of those countries, most, if not all, are financially weak countries.
Increasingly, many nations are no longer able to meet their financial obligations to China who will increasingly take possession of vital infrastructure assets.
So why has Andrews changed a model of interaction with China that was working so well?
And why has he, by signing up in secret to the Belt and Road program, sent a signal that Victoria is in financial need?
And why has Andrews signed up to a foreign country's political program, independent of national policy?
I value Victoria's and Australia's relationship with China. But not to the point that we put at risk our own sovereignty.
Andrews started this process secretly from the Victorian public.
We had no idea what he was committing us to. He has been forced to disclose more, let alone tell us what he might commit us to in the future.
My issue is not with China. Like any country or business, China is at liberty to promote its policies.
When Andrews was elected, twice, he never told us he was going to enter into secret deals with another country. Did Cabinet agree to a deal with another country, let alone a country that is not governed by democratic principles, and punishes dissent?
Remember the recent "red shirts affair" in which Andrews' Labor Party took public money to contest the 2014 election? They denied acting illegally for years and fought it through the courts, at our expense, to try to prevent the matter from becoming public.
When found out, they paid back the money, but not the millions of your and my money spent pursuing the matter through the courts.
The Labor government and Andrews have a history of denying the truth, acting secretly, and not being open with the public they have the privilege to lead.
Why should any of us now believe anything Andrews or his government tells us about the Belt and Road program he has committed us to with China?
Clearly there is no one in his own party with the strength or independence to hold him to account. The state Opposition does not have the numbers to do so and the independents in the Upper House invariably side with the government automatically.
The media is becoming alert to the issue and the risks, and is asking more questions.
Premier, do not tell me of the importance of China to Victoria, because I know and support that, but that has been founded by governments before yours Liberal and Labor - laying a responsible groundwork.
It appears you have changed all of that and maybe about to enter into new arrangements with a foreign country that could have profound and adverse ramifications for Victorians.
When in Opposition you railed against the conservative government for not being transparent enough, but you are more secretive than any recent government, federal or state.
If what you are doing is supportable why not be open and honest with the community?
If you have nothing to hide, be honest with us all if you continue to commit to this program.
Have a very concerned day.
JEFF KENNETT IS FORMER PREMIER OF VICTORIA
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