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Turnbull's secret Belt & Road MOU with Communist China

The Turnbull government has refused to release an agreement it signed with China covering the controversial “Belt and Road Initiative” infrastructure program on the grounds Beijing does not want it made public.

Trade Minister Steven Ciobo signed the memorandum of understanding last September for cooperation on building infrastructure such as roads, bridges and dams in third countries - including under the Belt and Road Initiative - during a visit to Beijing.

The BRI is a web of infrastructure that spans continents. What is China's motive?

Canberra’s response to the so-called BRI has been a balancing act because, while it supports more infrastructure in Asia and the Pacific region and wants opportunities for Australian firms, it is concerned the initiative is a strategic play by Beijing to dominate the region and involves murky financing that could leave poor countries beholden to Beijing.

The MOU would be expected to state Australia’s conditions for cooperating with China - such as that projects are financially transparent, do not involve corruption, genuinely help other countries and do not burden them with unsustainable debt.

But the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has refused to release the agreement under the Freedom of Information Act.

Mr Ciobo told Fairfax Media that “both parties are required to agree to release the text of the MOU and China has not agreed to do so".

In response to the FOI application by Fairfax Media, department official Elly Lawson said MOUs were “held to be confidential between the parties unless otherwise agreed”.

“As there is no such agreement in the current case, the element of confidentiality remains,” she said in a written response.

“In my opinion, disclosure without the express consent of the Chinese government would also damage the government’s relationship with China … as well as with other governments and international organisations with whom Australia has concluded MOUs.”

Releasing the document could "diminish the trust and confidence" in other governments signing such agreements with Australia, she said.

By contrast, New Zealand signed a memorandum of arrangement covering cooperation with China on the BRI last year and released the document in full.

The BRI is Chinese President Xi Jingping’s signature project to expand China’s economic and strategic reach by funding and building - largely either through grants or soft loans - infrastructure such as ports, bridges, roads and tunnels.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has previously told Fairfax Media that it is China’s vehicle “for greater political and strategic influence in the region” and added “there’s a lot still to know about BRI”, though if Australia’s conditions about transparency were met, it would happily work with China.

Mr Ciobo signed Australia’s MOU with He Lifeng, the chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, which oversees the BRI. He said afterwards the government was “working to identify and facilitate access to commercial opportunities resulting from BRI”.

Labor's foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong also asked for the document through a Senate Estimates hearing but was refused for the same reasons. Senator Wong was on leave this week and not available for comment.