Australia is ill-equipped to navigate rising geopolitical threats because “clunky interaction” between government departments, and a lack of policy clarity are hamstringing the country’s ability to screen trading relationships, so they are not against the national interest.
Michael Shoebridge of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said there was little interaction between departments responsible for trade and security, and the government needed to provide clarity on which jurisdictions or partners were trusted.
He pointed to a submission (pdf) by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade which stated that it was up to businesses to make investment decisions, and that the government was focused on reducing regulatory hurdles.
Shoebridge however said this was not enough, he called on the government to stop being “country-agnostic” with its policies and instead clearly outline which nations and jurisdictions it prefers to work with.
For example, the Australian government in June introduced new powers for the treasurer to review, amend, or veto foreign investment proposals coming into the country.
At the time foreign investment lawyer Bianca Jennings told The Epoch Times the laws inadvertently created a layer of uncertainty for companies based in countries that had long, amicable relationships with Australia.
“There needs to be a flip away from relying on free trade arrangements to a trusted-partnership approach that is based around confidence … and an alignment of values and interests—both those things,” Shoebridge told the Joint Standing Committee on Trade and Investment Growth.
“China and Russia are not country-agnostic; they’re very specific”, he added.
The comments come amid a backdrop of direct intervention from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in China’s trade relationships in retaliation for perceived slights against the regime.
For example, the CCP instigated bans on meat and barley products from Australia following Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s calls for an investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic in April.
“If there’s anywhere on the planet where the power of the state is manifested across commercial, university and research, and personal and public life, it is the Chinese government—the whole structure and design of its model of governance,” Shoebridge said.
“In the Chinese system, the companies and the research outfits pursue the government’s goals within the system. So it’s a Team China effect, and it means that private investment is not just private investment when it comes from a Chinese firm, and a commercial deal is not just a commercial deal …” he added.
Such concerns have led to greater pushback from Western nations against Chinese firms such as Huawei, TikTok, WeChat, and Zoom.
Shoebridge called for the government to issue direct warnings to companies of doing business in China, arguing that it should be an adequate deterrent for directors.
“It’s on the public record that Australians shouldn’t travel to China … right now if a CEO of an Australian company were to say, ‘Guess what? I’ve got a great new business proposal, and I’m going to set up a new centre in Shenzhen province, with 50 Australians I’m flying in,’ and they did that despite that government advice, their shareholders would probably punish them,” he said.