US, Australia Could 'Disconnect' If Victoria's Belt and Road Partnership Presents a Risk: Pompeo

US, Australia Could 'Disconnect' If Victoria's Belt and Road Partnership Presents a Risk: Pompeo
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, on April 29, 2020. (Andrew Harnik/File/AP Photo)
Daniel Y. Teng

The U.S. Secretary of State says the United States will “simply disconnect” with Australia if the Victorian state's Belt and Road partnership with Beijing presents any risk to telecommunications infrastructure.

Mike Pompeo told Sky News on May 24 that the United States was keen to continue working with Australia on security and that it was a “great partner,” but it needed to prioritise the safety of its own telecommunications network.

“We will not take any risk to our telecommunications infrastructure, any risk to national security elements with our Five Eyes partners. We are going to protect and preserve the security of those institutions,” he said.

“I don’t know the nature of those (Victoria’s) projects precisely, but to the extent they have an adverse impact on our ability to protect telecommunications from our private citizens, or security networks for our defence, or intelligence communities, we will simply disconnect, we will simply separate,” Pompeo said.

“We are going to trusted networks for important information. We hope our friends, partners, allies around the world, especially allies like Australia, will do the same.”

Pompeo also warned Australia that projects that form part of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP's) Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) need to be looked at carefully, and every project from BRI had a “cost to it.”

“Often money is loaned at concessional rates, or conditions are placed in debt documents, or government concessions have to be made to the Chinese Communist Party in order to get those (BRI) projects built,” Pompeo said.

“(They) present real risks to the people, and real risk to the country. Frankly, they build up the capacity of the (CCP) to do harm in other ways as well.”

So far, Victoria's Labor Premier Daniel Andrews has signed two agreements with Beijing’s National Development and Reform Commission, progressing the state’s involvement in the BRI. A third agreement is due to be signed middle of 2020.

Victoria’s BRI at Odds With Federal Policy

Victoria’s involvement in the BRI has been a consistent source of controversy, as it has placed the state at odds with the federal government’s stance on the program.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a press conference on May 24 that the federal government did not support Victoria's actions.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and President Donald Trump attend an official visit ceremony at the South Lawn at the White House in Washington on Sept. 20, 2019. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and President Donald Trump attend an official visit ceremony at the South Lawn at the White House in Washington on Sept. 20, 2019. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

“National interest issues on foreign affairs are determined by the federal government," Morrison said.

“I respect their jurisdiction when it comes to the issues they are responsible for, and it’s always been the usual practice for states to respect and recognise the role of the federal government in setting foreign policy.

“I think that’s always been a good practice.”

Last week, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton called the BRI a “propaganda exercise from China.”

Dutton said he was “gravely concerned,” citing a series of issues involving the Chinese communist regime, including its claims in the South China Sea, its militarisation of ports in the Asia Pacific, and its attempts to “buy influence” in Australia.

“Victoria needs to explain why it’s the only state in the country that has entered into this relationship,” he said.

The Morrison government's pushback against the projects has received bipartisan support with Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching writing on Twitter on May 20 that Victoria “erred in signing up” to the BRI.

Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells told The Epoch Times on May 11 that the BRI was “skulduggery” by the Chinese communist regime and it was “code” for debt-trap diplomacy.

“Those leading our ‘fellow traveller’ foreign policy over many years and those doing business with China have preferred to turn a blind eye to CCP’s skulduggery so long as cash flows were maintained,” said Fierravanti-Wells.

"Fellow traveller" refers to individuals who are not communists, yet sympathise with the Chinese Communist Party's goals and policies.

“This approach has led to our present predicament and has made us more vulnerable to economic coercion as was evidenced by the Chinese Ambassador’s [threats],” she said.

Telecommunications Is the New Vanguard of BRI

United States-based defence think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), published a paper on April 13, highlighting how the Chinese communist regime has been actively advancing the digital component of the BRI (Digital Silk Road) even as the country suffers from the pandemic.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping declared on March 4 that the regime would increase investment and “accelerate the construction of new infrastructure such as 5G networks and data centres.”
China’s three largest telecommunications firms—all state-owned—responded to the call and upped the development of 5G in the country.
The Digital Silk Road refers to the Chinese regime and its state-owned entities building digital infrastructure across the world, including telecommunications networks and smart cities, to gain a future upper hand in the realms of cyberspace and space.

In the current global climate, the CCP has found it easier to advance the Digital Silk Road rather than the BRI, particularly in developing countries.

The CSIS found it was “lower cost, easier to deliver, and easier to monetise” than traditional construction projects. It was also less likely to stoke resentment from local communities.

The CSIS found that 60 percent of projects in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—a flagship of the BRI—has been mired in delays, including pipeline and railway projects.

However, in the digital space, Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei was able to lay 820 kilometres of fiber-optic cable across the China-Pakistan border and deep into the country in less than two years.

“The project cost just US$44 million—less than it costs to build only four kilometres of railway in Pakistan,” the report stated.

“Given Pakistan’s mounting debt, the second phase of CPEC, much like the future of the BRI, will place a greater emphasis on smaller, higher-tech projects.”

Daniel Y. Teng is based in Brisbane, Australia. He focuses on national affairs including federal politics, COVID-19 response, and Australia-China relations. Got a tip? Contact him at