Labor could enter jointly funded infrastructure ventures with the Chinese government in Australia’s north under Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative, all as part of an escalated embrace of Asia, should it win the next election.
Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen will today propose coordinating the $5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund with the Belt and Road initiative, a massive push by Chinese President Xi Jinping to fund a global network of major infrastructure projects throughout the region and beyond such as ports, rail networks, bridges and roads. It is regarded with suspicion in certain circles as a vehicle by which Beijing wants to exert political and economic influence.
In a major policy speech, Mr Bowen will accuse the Coalition government of “tinkering” and “gradualism” when it comes to engaging with Asia as he outlines what he says will be a fundamental whole of government and whole of nation approach.
Other policy initiatives to be announced today range from strengthening business engagement by increasing Asian expertise in boardrooms, to establishing diaspora groups, boosting ministerial engagement, and rekindling measures from the Gillard government’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper. This includes working with the states to give every Australian student the opportunity to study an Asian language.
Mr Bowen will tell the Asia Society “collaboration with our major trading partner” is “key” to what he will badge Labor’s FutureAsia policy approach.
“The Chinese economy continues to undergo very rapid change. President Xi’s Belt and Road initiative will have profound ramifications for years to come,” he will say.
“We will come to office if we win the next election with an open mind as to how Australia and China can best collaborate on the Belt and Road Initiative, with a clear-eyed approach to our respective national interests.
“We will examine proposals on a case by case basis including considering how the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility and the Belt and Road Initiative can best complement each other.”
The NAIF is a $5 billion loan facility established by the Coalition to fund infrastructure ventures in the nation’s north. It has not been accessed yet.
Belt and Road is more popular within Labor than the Coalition, which is more sceptical and yet to endorse the program.
Prior to the visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in March there was a push to link the NAIF with the Belt and Road Initiative, but the government resisted.
At least 68 countries have signed up to the initiative, including New Zealand, Indonesia and Russia.
NSW Labor leader Luke Foley recently has endorsed the policy at a press conference for Chinese media. It is being pushed within Labor circles by former NSW premier and former foreign minister Bob Carr, now director of the Australian-China Relations Institute.
Trade Minister Steven Ciobo attended a Belt and Road summit in China earlier this year. He said there was merit in the initiative and opportunities for collaboration, “but we take decisions about initiatives in Australia on the basis of what is Australia’s national interest”.
Mr Bowen, too, will say the “step change” required to comprehensively broaden engagement with Asia “does not involve agreeing to anything proposed by any other country in our region which is not in our national interest”.
“It doesn’t involve walking away from a foreign policy approach is based around Australian values and interests and it doesn’t involve ignoring engagement with the rest of the world, but it does involve a prioritisation which recognises where so much economic potential lies.”
He said despite all the emphasis placed on Asian engagement by the government, Australian companies invest more in New Zealand than they do in China, Japan, ASEAN and India combined.
“And our level of investment in countries like Thailand and Indonesia is, frankly, embarrassing.”
When in government, Ms Gillard commissioned the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper to act as a guide for how to engage in the region, especially as it moved from the investment phase, which required huge amounts of commodities, to an insatiable demand for services driven by a burgeoning middle class.
The incoming Coalition adopted some elements. It added the New Colombo Plan designed to further education and people-to-people ties and concluded trade deals with Japan, China and South Korea. It beefed up the deal with Singapore and reactivated stalled talks with Indonesia and started talks with India.
But Mr Bowen, who has learnt Indonesia’s Bahasa language at night school, will argue Australia still pays lip service to Asia and there is a lack of policy continuity between governments. He said the white paper “lies archived, gathering dust”.
“Efforts, for example, are made on Asian language literacy, but incoming governments cut them because they weren’t their idea,” he will say.
If elected, Labor will recommit to the White Paper policy goal of giving every student the opportunity to study an Asian language with the priorities being Hindi, Mandarin, Indonesia and Japanese. This, he said, would require “a huge effort to realise” and would be done in conjunction with the states.
He will insist that bilateral free trade agreements are the “third-best option”, lagging a global free trade deal or regional initiatives like the now dead Trans-Pacific Partnership.
He will again commit Labor to supporting the TPP alternative, the Chinese-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which would include the 10 ASEAN member states plus Australia, China, India, Japan, Republic of Korea and New Zealand.
Labor will also commit $3 million to a program to be run by the Australian Institute of Company Directors on improving Asia expertise in boardrooms. The idea will be to facilitate the entry onto boards of Australia’s with business experience in Asia.
Labor will also borrow from Advance, the successful US diaspora program founded 15 years ago by former investment banker Ken Allen who served as Australia’s consul-general in New York. The program has been heralded as a success and proved particularly useful in the aftermath of the 2016 US election when the Australian government needed to establish contacts within the incoming Trump administration.
Mr Bowen said the the program will be copied to establish Asian diaspora groups in Australia and an Australian diaspora in Asia.
“This will focus first on Australia’s significant Chinese and Indian communities as well as the Japanese diaspora,” he will say.
The Labor initiative will also broaden contact between ministers of key Asian neighbours. Mr Bowen will propose that before each annual group of 20 finance minsters meeting, the finance ministers of the G20 nations in the Asia Pacific, which include Australia, India, China, Japan and Indonesia, have their own meeting.
“This is of course not to say that we will be bound to support each other’s propositions at the G20 but simply that we have a better idea of what each other are trying to achieve and better chance at ensuring Asia’s interests are kept in mind,’ he will say.
“I believe though that it is necessary to ensure that the G20, having achieved its original task of seeing the world through the global crisis, must have a refreshed and reviewed agenda.”
Additionally, the annual meeting between the leaders, defence and foreign affairs ministers of Australia and Indonesia should be expanded to include finance and trade ministers.
Mr Bowen says he as treasurer would report annually to parliament on the progress of FutureAsia policy implementation and economic engagement.