Australia receptive to China's One Belt, One Road, but national interest first

Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo has said Canberra is open to participating in the Belt and Road initiative but any involvement will have to be in Australia's national interest.
Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo has said Canberra is open to participating in the Belt and Road initiative but any involvement will have to be in Australia's national interest. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

BEIJING (Reuters) - Australia is receptive to exploring commercial opportunities China's new Silk Road presents to the country's businesses, but any decisions would remain incumbent on national interest, Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo said on Sunday (May 14).

Unlike New Zealand, which has signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation, Australia and other major Western economies have so far resisted overtures from Beijing to formally sign up to what is officially called the Belt and Road initiative.

The plan is Chinese President Xi Jinping's signature foreign and economic policy espousing billions of dollars of infrastructure investment linking Asia, Europe, Africa and beyond.

Australia's reluctance to commit stems at least in part from reservations against linking, at Beijing's request, an extensive Northern Australia infrastructure development plan directly with China's Silk Road, sources with knowledge of the matter have previously told Reuters.

Ciobo said there are a lot of opportunities for Australian businesses to be involved in China's new initiatives.

"Although the Northern Australia initiative is separate to the Belt and Road Initiative, there are clearly complementarities there so we can share knowledge and we can share experience for the benefit of both nations," he told reporters in Beijing, where he is representing Australia at a summit on the new Silk Road.

"We see much merit in the Belt and Road Initiative, we see opportunities for collaboration, but we take decisions about initiatives in Australia on the basis of what is Australia's national interest."

China and Australia have close economic ties, but Beijing is suspicious of Canberra's close military relationship with Washington.

On Friday, Australia's most senior defence department official said China is conducting extensive espionage against Australia.

Ciobo also condemned North Korea's latest firing of a ballistic missile early on Sunday, but would not be drawn on whether North Korea's attendance at the summit - at Beijing's invitation - sent the wrong message at a time when the world was trying to pressure Pyongyang over its repeated nuclear and missile tests.

"There more than a thousand delegates that are here," he said. "This is an event that has been organised by the Chinese to focus on the Belt and Road Initiative."

The United States sent a diplomatic note warning to China on Friday that North Korea's attendance at the summit could affect the participation of other countries, casting a shadow over what is Beijing's biggest diplomatic event of 2017, two sources with knowledge of the situation said.

Some Western diplomats have expressed unease about both the summit and the plan as a whole, seeing it as an attempt to push Chinese influence globally.

Opening the summit on Sunday, Xi pledged US$124 billion in funding toward the initiative.