Victoria’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been embroiled in further controversy this week as details of a group advocating the BRI were revealed to have received funding from the state government.
The Australian revealed on May 24 that the Australia-China Belt and Road Initiative (ACBRI) was awarded federal funding of $36,850 over a two-year period.
ACBRI is based in Melbourne and states on its LinkedIn profile that it was supported by the Victorian government and the Australia-China Council of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The profile also stated: “ACBRI is an engagement platform that enables Australian and Chinese industry leaders to articulate clear business opportunities available through China’s Belt and Road Strategy.”
The contents of the ACBRI website was deleted on May 25, and the site now features a message to say it is under construction. Prior to this, the website included information on its board, reports, presentations, local delegations to China (business and government), and testimonial from key Australian business leaders.
A Victorian government spokesperson told The Australian that ACBRI had provided “valuable insights” into opportunities around the BRI.
“The agreement is about creating opportunities for Victorian businesses and creating more local jobs—and we’re proud to work with the Australia-China Belt and Road Initiative.”
Jean Dong, the director of ACBRI, responded in a statement on May 24: “ACBRI is not involved in any formal process towards the Victorian government striking a Belt and Road Initiative agreement.”
She said ACBRI was a local advisory organisation funded by businesses to “advise on Belt and Road opportunities and developments for Australian businesses.”
“In that capacity, we advised the Victorian government on BRI opportunities and current developments. That was the end of it,” she said.
Attention around Victoria’s BRI has been fervent in recent weeks as politicians at home and abroad have called for the partnership to be suspended in light of the Chinese Communist Party’s actions surrounding Australia’s call for an inquiry into the pandemic.
On May 24, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Sky News the United States would consider “disconnecting” from Australia if Victoria’s BRI presented a risk to telecommunications infrastructure.
The U.S. Ambassador to Australia, Arthur Culvahouse Jr. elaborated further on May 25, saying the United States understood telecommunications was an area under the authority of the federal government, and not a state government like Victoria.
However, Culvahouse did say, “If there were telecommunications initiatives that we thought put the integrity of our networks at risk, of course we would have to take a close look at that, as the secretary suggested.”
Federal opposition Labor leader Anthony Albanese is the latest Australian political leader to publicly reject the program. He told radio station Triple M Tasmania on May 25: “A government I led would not be signing up to the Belt and Road Initiative.”