Hours after Mr Pompeo appeared in an interview warning against Victoria’s involvement in China’s backing of foreign infrastructure projects, the US government sought to clarify the remarks and insisted it had confidence in Australia’s ability to protect the security of its telecommunications.
On Sunday Mr Pompeo was asked on Sky News about whether Victoria joining the Belt and Road Initiative raised concerns about Australia and if it exposed Victorians to any threats.
Mr Pompeo said all Australians should know that “every one of those Belt and Road projects needs to be looked at incredibly closely”.
Mr Pompeo said the US would not take any risks regarding its telecommunications infrastructure or national security with regards to its “five eyes” security partners. Australia is one of those partners.
“I don’t know the nature of those 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 and intelligence communities we will simply disconnect,” he said.
But several hours later US ambassador to Australia Arthur Culvahouse, issued a statement saying Mr Pompeo had been asked to “address a hypothetical” and he was unfamiliar with Victoria’s Belt and Road discussions.
“We are not aware that Victoria has engaged in any concrete projects under BRI, let alone projects impinging on telecommunications networks, which we understand are a federal matter,” Mr Culvahouse said.
A Victorian government spokeswoman said the Belt and Road Initiative was about creating opportunities for Victorian businesses and local jobs.
“Telecommunications regulation is the responsibility of the Commonwealth government,” she said. “Victoria has not, and will not in the future, agree to telecommunications projects under the BRI.”
Mr Andrews restated his commitment to the employment benefits of a partnership with China, which he said was in “everybody’s interests”.
Mr Morrison, however, remained critical of the arrangement.
“We didn’t support that decision at the time they made it,” he said. “And national interest issues on foreign affairs are determined by the federal government. I respect their jurisdiction when it comes to the issues they’re 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.”
Victorian Liberal members have told The Age they want Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien to reject the deal. Despite being critical of the arrangement, Mr O’Brien refused to say whether the Victorian Coalition would ditch the deal if in power.
One senior Liberal said there was widespread opposition to Belt and Road within the party.
“Everybody wants to scrap it,” the figure said.
Mr O’Brien said the opposition would scrutinise the deal from an economics, security, employment and sovereignty point of view.
“But I can tell you everything is on the table because when it comes to protecting Victorian jobs and Victorian sovereignty I will be somebody who puts Victoria first.”
He called on the state government to explain how Victorians benefited from the Belt and Road Initiative.
“It was supposed to be about increasing agricultural trade between Victoria and China,” he said. “Instead we’ve seen our barley farmers whacked with an 80 per cent tariff.”
Benjamin is a state political reporter