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

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.

Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli delivers a speech on Plenary Session of High-Level Dialogue, at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China May 14, 2017. REUTERS/Kenzaburo Fukuhara/Pool

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 were 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,” 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.”

He added that infrastructure investment across the region required “a level playing field based on market principles and adherence to international best practice in financing.”

Paul Goldsmith, New Zealand minister for science and innovation and his country’s representative, told Reuters that New Zealand was keen to be involved in the new Silk Road.

“From our perspective, we’re here primarily to listen, to learn, to get a good understanding and to put up our hand and say New Zealand wants to be part of the discussion,” Goldsmith said.

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 defense department official said China is conducting extensive espionage against Australia.

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 and worried about a lack of transparency in the Belt and Road projects.

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

Editing by Ben Blanchard and Randy Fabi