By Ruan Zongze Source: Global Times
Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
The Australian government on Thursday passed Australia’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill 2020. The pact gives the federal government power to veto any agreement that has been made with foreign countries.
When the Australian government in August was planning to introduce this bill, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it was vital that Australia “speak with one voice,” adding that “where any of these agreements undermine how the federal government is protecting and promoting our national interests they can [be] cancelled.”
In Australia, there are many frictions and divergences between federal and state governments. Traditionally, state governments have certain degrees of autonomy.
Yet the exercise of this autonomy depends upon the political fight and struggle between federal and state governments.
Local governments would like to have more autonomy. This will bring more development opportunities and economic gains. By contrast, the federal government intends to tighten its control over local governments. In fact, the Australian federal government at the moment is attempting to achieve this goal under the pretext of safeguarding “national interests.”
This is a political game. States in Australia will be reluctant to see their authority weakened, or economic gains undermined. It has been reported that over 130 current deals with 30 different countries would come under review with the passage of this bill. State governments will no doubt fight against the bill.
Under the new law, the Australian foreign minister has the power to axe any deal signed between a foreign country and an Australian state government, local council or publicly funded university which may impair the federal government’s dealings with foreign relations. Australian foreign minister is likely to wield this power against local governments. Yet it is expected to mainly focus on certain countries or groups. This bill does not only involve diplomatic matters, but also serves the Australian government’s geopolitical purposes.
The bill is widely viewed as a response to Australia’s southeastern Victoria state signing a memorandum of understanding with China on the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2018. Cooperation between an Australia state and China under the framework of the BRI is something the Morrison administration certainly frowns upon. Analysts expect this bill could be used to crack down on dealings with China.
Victoria is still proactively cooperating with China. Even after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned in May that the US could “disconnect” from Australia over Victoria’s BRI deal, Premier of Victoria Daniel Andrews insisted that the agreement was done in the interest of Victoria’s economy and that the state will “continue to work at a strong partnership.”
As China-Australia relations began to spiral downward this year, cooperation between China and Victoria on the BRI has embarrassed the Australian federal government. Victoria, therefore, has become a target of the federal government. Passing the new legislation that gives the federal government power to veto any agreement struck with foreign states at this time is an obvious attempt to serve Australia’s geopolitical interests under the name of “national security.” There is no doubt that the passing of the act will further mess up the already strained China-Australia relations.
Australia now seems to be in an abnormal state of political madness and paranoia, with a distorted mind-set confusing what is right and what is wrong. The fact that the legislation could be passed in the parliament shows that anti-China forces in Australian political circles are gaining the momentum. Political prejudices are coming first, overwhelming their consideration for actual interests. This will inevitably undermine Australia’s economic interests. Unfortunately, there is still no sign that Australia is likely to make changes.
Passing the legislation is Australia’s domestic affair and China has no interest to intervene. But if the Australian federal government uses this act to jeopardize China’s interests, China will do everything it can to safeguard its own interests.
The author is executive vice president and senior research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies. [email protected]