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International relations

Australian leader rips local government's deal with China

Morrison says state did not report signing of Belt and Road memorandum

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, right, says he was surprised by the actions of the Victorian government on international affairs.   © Reuters

SYDNEY -- Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison criticized the state government of Victoria for signing on to China's Belt and Road initiative without first consulting with Canberra.

The prime minister told reporters he "was surprised that the Victorian government went into that arrangement without any discussions with the commonwealth government ... on what is a matter of international relations. I would've hoped the Victorian government would've taken a more cooperative approach."

Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews in late October finalized a memorandum of understanding with Chinese Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye, making Victoria the first and only state in Australia to support President Xi Jinping's ambitious trade and infrastructure program.

"Victorian businesses are one step closer to unlocking the trade and investment opportunities of China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, with a historic agreement between Victoria and China signed today," the premier's official website said in the Oct. 25 announcement. 

Andrews' spokesperson has said the state did consult with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade during the MOU drafting process. The move is widely seen as boosting the premier's popularity ahead of the Nov. 24 state election.

Sino-Australia relations are in a delicate phase after ties frayed under the administration of previous Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Regarding the Belt and Road deal, Morrison has expressed frustration that the commonwealth government's foreign policy is being taken lightly. Foreign Minister Marise Payne is visiting China for two days through Thursday to discuss the matter with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.

The pact is also spurring controversy because it is seen as a challenge by the Australian Labor Party-governed Victoria to the ruling Liberal-National Coalition, which lacks control of the parliament.

Back in 2015, Australia's Northern Territory angered the national government by signing a 99-year lease for key port facilities in Darwin with Chinese logistics company Landbridge Group.

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