SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia passed legislation yesterday aimed at preventing interference by foreign governments, a move likely to further stoke tensions with major trading partner China.
Mirroring similar rules in the United States, Australia will require lobbyists for foreign countries to register, and makes them liable for criminal prosecution if they are deemed to be meddling in domestic affairs. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last year referred to “disturbing reports about Chinese influence” as justification for the measures.
China has denied allegations of meddling in Australian affairs, but concern over Chinese political donations and relationships between lawmakers and Chinese businesses has intensified in Australia.
“It will come down to whether China is cited when the legislation passes. China will not want to again be singled out,” said James Laurenceson, deputy director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney.
The legislative package before the Senate includes the new Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill, which requires the registration of lobbyists working for foreign governments.
Another amended law expands potential crimes to include meddling by these agents.
Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said law-making was a country’s internal affair and he declined to comment, though he did appeal for all countries to “abandon Cold War thinking”.
“We further want all other countries in the world to follow the principle of not interfering in other countries’ internal affairs,” Lu told a daily news briefing. The widening diplomatic rift between Australia and China has affected some of their $125 billion in two-way trade as Australian wine exporters such as Treasury Wine Estates faced delays getting some products through Chinese customs.
Australian cattle graziers and citrus growers also fear they are being sidelined by China as a result of the row.
Against this backdrop of cooling relations, Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei Technologies Co Ltd has emerged as a lightning rod for Australian security fears.
Lord, a former rear admiral in Australia’s navy, said security concerns based on Huawei’s links to China were “uninformed or just plain wrong”.
“Nothing sinister has been found. No wrongdoing, no criminal action, no intent, no back door, no planted vulnerability and no magical kill switch,” he said.
Turnbull said the government was still mulling Huawei’s role in the country’s nascent 5G network.