In 1979, the year America formally recognised the communist People’s Republic of China, Victoria's then premier, Rupert Hamer, initiated a sister-state relationshipwith the Chinese province of Jiangsu, on the country's east coast. Since then the arrangement has fostered ties in education, the arts, medicine, business, science and technology.
But a program in which Victorian businesses and researchers are eligible for grants of up to $200,000 from the state government for joint ventures with counterparts in Jiangsu is in jeopardy under new foreign relations rules introduced by the federal government that give Canberra veto power over such agreements.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is looking to crack down on agreements Premier Daniel Andrews has made with China. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
The Age cited on Monday two senior federal government sources with knowledge of the review process for foreign agreements as saying the Victoria-Jiangsu program was on a list that the Department of Foreign Affairs had identified as potentially contrary to Australia's national interest.
This has been backed up by Dr Paul Monk, a former head of China analysis in Australia’s Defence Department, who said the Jiangsu program could allow firms linked to the Chinese government to obtain access to Australian intellectual property, and it should be viewed through the prism of President Xi Jinping's recently stated intention, reported by Chinese state media, of increasing his nation's military-industrial strength.
There is also no getting around the fact that Australia's relationship with China is at its lowest ebb for many years. Beijing has made its displeasure with Australia well known, and Victoria has become part of the dispute. China’s recently released 14 grievances with Australia included its unhappiness with the Morrison government’s attempt to “torpedo” Victoria’s Belt and Road deal with the new legislation.
The Age has already stated that, on balance, Victoria needs to accept that its Belt and Road agreement with China should be terminated. For Mr Xi, the Belt and Road program is a signature policy that unites all of China’s efforts to exert influence around the globe. For that reason, it is a key foreign policy issue in an increasingly difficult environment, and Canberra should take the leading role.
But the Jiangsu program is a longer-standing one and more difficult to dismiss. It supports research and development related to innovations in sectors such as advanced manufacturing, aerospace, biotechnology, medicine, information and communication technology, and environmental protection. Many of the grants up until now have supported products or services with little to no military application.
For example, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute used a grant to support work on a potential cure for hepatitis B, and Deakin University, in conjunction with Jiangsu BOHN Environmental Protection Science & Technology Company, did work on reducing industrial air pollution.
On intellectual property, the Burnet Institute's deputy director of partnerships, Associate Professor David Anderson, said no Australian institution would ever sign up to an agreement under which its existing IP, which might have been years in the making, was handed over.
On the other hand, as China gets more aggressive globally, there is an argument that curtailing co-operation with Beijing makes sense.
The Age believes, however, that there is a more sensible path. The Victorian and federal governments should work more closely together to ensure that programs such as the Jiangsu grants operate in a way that ensures Australian intellectual property can be protected and there is no military application.
Australia needs to get smarter in its dealings with China. We need to work out where we can co-operate for mutual benefit and resist the urge to simply shut down programs in the face of difficulties.
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