Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews will travel to China this week for a trade mission, his first since the state’s Belt and Road agreements were torn up.
- Mr Andrews will spend about four days in China, where he will have a focus on international students
- It comes about two years after the Commonwealth scrapped the state’s Belt and Road agreements
- The visit will be the first by an Australian leader since the AUKUS submarine deal was signed
The premier confirmed he would travel to China, which is both the state and the nation’s biggest trading partner, on Monday night.
It will make him the first Australian politician to visit China since the AUKUS submarine deal was inked amid rising security tensions.
Mr Andrews said there would be a “very busy program of meetings” during the trip, which would take him to Beijing, Jiangsu Province and Chengdu from Tuesday to Saturday morning.
“It’s a quick visit, but a really important opportunity for us to impress upon all of our partners in China … that Melbourne is open, Victoria’s open, that the Chinese economy and Chinese community, business, our partners, are very, very important to us,” he said.
The visit would be the first major public development in the relationship between Victoria and China since deals inked as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) were torn up by the Commonwealth.
The federal government scrapped four deals between Victoria and foreign nations in 2021 under Commonwealth powers which had just been introduced.
The deals included two with China —a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed in 2018 and a framework agreement signed in 2019. The move also scrapped an MOU with Iran signed by the Kennett government and a scientific cooperation deal signed by the Bracks government.
The MOU and framework agreement were controversial because they were signed as part of the BRI — a massive network of Chinese-funded infrastructure projects. The second instalment of the deal was also done without the involvement of the federal Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
Mr Andrews told reporters at the Sunday morning press conference the BRI matter was “in the past”. He signalled he was unlikely to sign any major agreements on the mission.
Mr Andrews said he would not be taking media on the trip to a country which is consistently criticised for a lack of press freedom. Very few western journalists are currently based in China after a number — including the ABC’s China correspondent — were forced out in recent years.
The premier downplayed questions about transparency, saying it would not be a “very picture-friendly trip”.
Andrews touts ‘true partnership’
The trip could signal a further thawing of the trade relationship between Australia China at a time when strategic and defence tensions are growing.
When Foreign Minister Penny Wong visited in late December, it was the first federal ministerial visit in more than three years.
Senator Wong then met with her Chinese counterpart at the G20 meeting in India earlier this month, telling reporters the countries could “continue to grow our bilateral relationship while safeguarding our national interests” but only “if we both navigate our differences wisely”.
Chinese leaders and diplomats have accused the plan of fuelling an arms race, hurting peace and stability and undermining nuclear non-proliferation.
Victoria has worked with DFAT on the details of this mission.
Federal cabinet minister Bill Shorten said the Commonwealth would always prioritise national security, “but I think it’s a good development” that Victoria was engaging with China.
Mr Andrews said Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was “very supportive of our trip” and signalled other state premiers may make similar journeys this year.
The premier said a focus of the trip would be growing the number of Chinese students studying in Victoria from about the current number of about 42,000.
International students are one of Victoria’s biggest economic drivers and the sector took a massive hit during pandemic lockdowns in both Australia and China.
Victoria’s debt is ballooning, with figures yesterday confirming that successive interest rate rises are putting even more pressure on the budget.
Victorian Liberal deputy leader David Southwick said that the opposition “absolutely support the intention of building relationships with China”, but questioned why Mr Andrews was “being so secretive” about the trip.
Mr Southwick asked whether the visit would be beneficial for Victorians and linked it to budgetary pressures, saying that Victoria was “struggling to manage” in its current financial position.
Mr Andrews said he wanted to impress that “Victoria is a trusted partner” and that those visiting the state for tourism, education, work or investment would be “respected and safe and valued”.
“The partnership is more than just purchases, it’s more than just products, it is a true partnership. Not just about trade, but about trust and making sure that we grow together,” he said.