Australia is preparing to offer a haven for Hong Kong residents following China’s imposition of a draconian security law on the territory, the government said on Thursday.
Prime minister Scott Morrison said Australia, which has extensive commercial and personal ties with Hong Kong, had already drafted proposals similar to the UK’s offer of a pathway to British citizenship to Hong Kong residents. He said a decision on the proposals would be made shortly.
If you are “asking are we prepared to step up and provide support, the answer is yes”, Mr Morrison said.
On Thursday China threatened to take “corresponding measures” to prevent the UK from opening a path to citizenship for almost 3m Hong Kong residents.
The move by Canberra follows a request last month from London to its partners in the “Five Eyes” intelligence network — Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US — for “burden sharing” if there was an exodus from Hong Kong.
Australia’s willingness to extend a haven for Hong Kong residents represents Canberra’s latest snub to Beijing, which critics claim is rapidly eroding the autonomy promised to the territory after its handover from the UK to China in 1997.
Sino-Australian relations have fallen to their lowest level in a generation following Canberra’s call for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 and introduction of foreign interference laws directed towards Beijing.
Over the past two months China, which is Australia’s largest trade partner with two-way trade worth A$235bn in 2018-19, has fired several diplomatic salvos at Canberra. Beijing has slapped sanctions on its barley and beef exports and issued a travel warning to its own citizens about Australia.
This week, Canberra announced a new defence strategy, which acknowledged that strategic competition in the Asia-Pacific region between the US and China had evolved faster than anticipated. It said it was critical that Australia was seen as able and willing to deploy military power.
According to the new plan, Australia will increase defence spending to A$270bn over a decade, up from A$200bn that was planned in 2016. It will also acquire long-range strike missiles for the first time.
Mr Morrison did not release details of Canberra’s proposals to offer Hong Kong residents safety, but analysts said an offer of a path to Australian citizenship could prove popular among young people in the territory.
Australia’s last census in 2016 recorded 86,886 Hong Kong-born people in the country, an increase of 15.9 per cent from the 2011 census.
Ben Bland, a research fellow at Lowy Institute and author of a book on young people and identity in Hong Kong, said Beijing’s intensifying crackdown had prompted more people in the territory to consider exit plans.
“Depending on what Canberra offers in terms of visa access, Australia would be an attractive option for those looking to leave because of the economic opportunities, quality of life and the sizeable Hong Kong community in Australia already,” he said.
However, he pointed out that many Hong Kongers still wanted to stay and continue the struggle in their homeland. Mr Bland added that suggestions by some commentators that an exodus would see a large transfer of wealth from Hong Kong to western democracies were wide of the mark.
“Many of the activists who are most at risk from the national security law are students, young people and others from outside the ranks of Hong Kong’s wealthiest,” said Mr Bland.
A spokeswoman for Winston Peters, New Zealand’s deputy prime minister and foreign affairs minister, said the country’s cabinet was not considering a haven proposal.
The British government condemned Beijing’s sweeping new security law for the territory on Wednesday as a “serious breach” of the UK-China agreement on Hong Kong and pledged to introduce a new route to citizenship for people with British National Overseas status.
Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK, warned on Thursday that the extension of visa rights was a breach of international law and that “all Chinese compatriots residing in Hong Kong are Chinese nationals, whether or not they are holders of the British Dependent Territories Citizens passport or the British National (Overseas) passport.”
In a statement on the embassy’s website, Mr Xiaoming said: “If the British side makes unilateral changes to the relevant practice, it will breach its own position and pledges, as well as international law and basic norms.
“We firmly oppose this and reserve the right to take corresponding measures. The UK has no sovereignty, jurisdiction or right of ‘supervision’ over Hong Kong”.
Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary, admitted on Wednesday evening that the government would not be able to “force” China to allow BNOs to come to the UK.
Speaking to ITV’s Peston programme, he said: “Ultimately if they follow through on something like that there would be little that we could do to coercively force them.”
Additional reporting by Laura Hughes in London