Ciobo’s hypocrisy in Hong Kong

The Turnbull Government’s lack of a clear China policy came under the spotlight last week when Trade and Investment Minster Steve Ciobo visited Hong Kong in an effort to reassure China that Australia remains “open for business.”

This is arguably putting at risk some of the benefits that the government has claimed will flow from its over-touted China Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA).

The glibness of this phrase “open for business”– and indeed its inaccuracy – has been exposed in recent months, with the government blocking Chinese investment in the NSW electricity grid and the Kidman land deal.

Mr Ciobo said his trip to Hong Kong was designed to reassure Beijing. So why not go to Beijing? Still, Hong Kong is now being wrapped so warmly in the embrace of the mainland perhaps it doesn’t make so much difference these days.

Yet his utterings during the trip were, in the main part, circular – using what he was saying to prove what he was saying,

“Australia is still a very outward looking economy, “Mr Ciobo told CNN’s Squawk Box. “ We’re a very mature, developed economy.

“One that, of course, focuses and builds upon economic momentum off the back of foreign directed investment and foreign investment more generally. The chance to speak at the CLSA conference, the chance to reinforce the message that Australia very much is open for business and that there is that issue that you raised about the sense of proportion, which is five rejections out of around 15,000 applications to our Foreign Investment Review Board. They’re pretty good odds.”

Then he added: “What I’ve made clear though, and this is off the back of feedback that I’ve received from potential bidders and successful bidders, is that they’d like more certainty around the investment framework when it comes to which assets they can get into and which ones they can’t.

“If we can put in place a policy that helps to drive more certainty but also still of course, safeguards Australia’s national interest, then I think that that’s the right outcome.”

Of course, we are still awaiting the actual policy rather than the gibber-gabber.

Still, despite the ongoing investment furore and the resultant confusion, things in the tech world are still moving ahead in China, The launch of the federal government’s Shanghai ‘landing pad’ for Australia came very quietly in the wake of the visit by Malcolm Turnbull to China for the annual G20 leaders summit in early September.

The launch was held in the nearby city of Hangzhou, only 30 minutes ride on one the country’s marvellous fast trains. So it would have been easy enough for the PM to have shoehorn the launch into his trip to China.

One has to think that pre-election Malcolm, probably with his young padwan, former Assistant Innovation Minister Wyatt Roy in tow, would have done just that.

But the direction of the PM’s innovation push has changed, as noted here previously, away from startup mania.

So, what the PM did instead, to put the innovation and technology stamp on his trip to the Middle Kingdom was to ink a deal between Hangzhou’s Alibaba, the online sourcing site turned digital and media behemoth, which us that city’s most famous tech company.

What is a little unfortunate about Mr Ciobo’s trip, particularly for the technology sector, is that it came only days after the release of a new report from Austrade on the health care sector and China: ‘Health and Aged Care Industry in China: A Guide for Australian Business’, which outlines the key opportunities in health emerging from our biggest trading partner.

Mr Ciobo’s office stated in a media release that ChAFTA is providing the possibility of greater opportunities for Australian health and aged care providers to do business in China.

”Under ChAFTA Australian medical services providers are able to establish wholly-Australian owned aged care facilities in China with no geographical restrictions,” the statement said.

“By 2020, China’s population is expected to reach 1.4 billion people, of which 248 million will be aged 60 or over. In responding to this demographic shift, China has embarked on fundamental health and aged care reforms through its Healthy China 2020 strategy. This strategy proposes a role for private enterprise and foreign capital in developing China’s health and aged care sector and also aims at a target of 10 million aged care workers by 2020.”

The report “pinpoints ways in which digital technologies can be applied to develop Internet health systems. Currently more than 150 million Chinese use e-health systems.”

But is that opportunity being dampened by Australia’s recent moves to turn down deep-pocketed Chinese investors?

It won’t have helped, either, that as Mr Ciobo’s trip to Hong Kong was wrapping up, an Australian consortium placed a bid for Ausgrid that will, in all likelihood, be accepted.

It is entirely understandable, at this moment, that infrastructure should come under closely scrutiny as China amps ups its aggression on the South and East China Seas, along with its state sponsored cyber hacking programs.

Still, what is never explained properly by our government is how Australia is somehow more “open for business” now that we have turned down a couple of potential high profile Chinese investments in Australia.

In trying to play both sides of the street the government leaves itself open to charges of hypocrisy. Worse still, it ends up satisfying nobody.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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