Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Beware of Chinese bearing gifts

The China-Australia Free Trade Agreement needs to be studied line-by-line.

It needs to be tested by academics, business, community leaders and politicians. There should be a national debate, led by Parliament certainly, over not just the headlines, but the fine print. Who wins and who loses; and whether the wins more than balance out the inevitable losses.

Unfortunately Australians are not going to get that opportunity until after the agreement is signed, sealed and delivered next year. That means the much-heralded announcement this week is little more than a statement of intent with a few headlines (dot points as one academic described them) put out mainly for publicity purposes in the wake of the G20 summit.

Certainly the initial sampling is positive – in fact the headlines suggest a better deal than most had reasonably hoped for. Meat, dairy and wine producers will benefit from reduced or eliminated tariffs; iron ore, gold and coking coal will have their tariffs removed; service industries – education, tourism, health and aged care – will have new or improved access to the Chinese market.

But there are other areas that need further investigation. Why, for instance, is China insisting on having the right to bring its own people into the country to work on projects in which it is investing?

Prime Minister, Tony Abbott says this will not happen if the right kind of Australian skilled labour is available, but who decides whether this is the case or not? Chinese investment in Africa has been accompanied by thousands of its own workers, with locals relegated to the most menial of tasks – if at all.

When all these factors are considered it should be remembered that Beijing never does anything that will not overwhelmingly bring benefits to its own interests – if not immediately then down the track. It makes no concessions that can’t be turned to its advantage at some point.

China seeks to dominate this region. It promotes its own brand of government as more suitable for developing nations than “chaotic and inefficient” democracy. The counterweight to this is, of course, the United States and the US’s major ally in the area – once famously called its ‘deputy sheriff” - is Australia.

But Australia has become increasingly dependent on its economic relationship with China to maintain its prosperity. The Free Trade Agreement will significantly increase that dependence.

Money talks – and could there be a time when Australia’s desire to maintain a reasonable standard of living for its people outweighs traditional ties with nations that have shared values and love of personal freedoms?

In short, could Australia’s dependence on trade with China eventually force it into Beijing’s orbit?  

Only time will answer that question but I was concerned when I heard Tony Abbott, in his eulogy of the deal, say that he now ‘trusted’ the Chinese leadership.

Trade by all means, but trust is another matter.

Beware of Chinese bearing gifts. 



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