Australia passes laws against foreign meddling

It toughens penalties for espionage amid reported interference by China and others

CANBERRA • Australian lawmakers have overwhelmingly passed Bills to crack down on foreign interference, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull saying they were needed to stop reported meddling by China and other nations in the country's government, media and universities.

The legislation passed yesterday toughens penalties for espionage and requires people or organisations acting in the interest of overseas powers to register and disclose their ties.

It was passed with 39 votes in favour with 12 against. A similar Bill was introduced in the US Congress that would mandate a report on Chinese attempts to influence American politics, and other Western nations could soon follow with their own regulatory measures.

The laws risk exacerbating diplomatic tensions between China and Australia, which have soured this year after Mr Turnbull cited reports that organisations affiliated with Beijing had attempted to influence national affairs, as a catalyst for the Bills. As the most China dependent developed economy, Australia potentially has a lot to lose should relations deteriorate further: Exporters have already said the strained ties were behind delayed shipments into the ports of its biggest trading partner.

Over the past decade, China has become Australia's top trading partner, biggest provider of foreign students and largest source of tourism revenue. It accounted for 29 per cent of Australia's two-way commerce in 2016, nearly double that a decade earlier, as it snatched up Australia's iron ore and coal to feed a construction boom.

China has denied interfering in Australia's affairs. China's Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye last week called for an end to the "Cold War mentality", and bias and bigotry affecting the relationship.

In making the case to pass anti-foreign interference legislation, Mr Turnbull in December cited reports that a lawmaker received a payment from a Chinese-born businessman and had also warned him that Australia's intelligence agencies were tapping his phones. He also noted possible meddling by Russia, Iran and North Korea.

Mr Turnbull particularly angered China by telling reporters in broken Mandarin that the Australian people should "stand up and assert their sovereignty" - adapting a phrase attributed to Mao Zedong in the 1940s.

The Australian legislation will widen the definition of espionage offences in addition to imposing stronger penalties and disclosure requirements. The two Bills were agreed upon after a parliamentary committee amended them to include protections for charities and religious groups.

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin has welcomed the legislation amid what he has called "unprecedented levels of foreign activity".

The legislation has been closely followed in the US, which shares Australia's concerns about China's militarisation of the South China Sea and investment in sensitive industries.

China is making a coordinated effort to influence US affairs through surveillance, New Jersey Republican Chris Smith said on Monday.

"It's an all-out effort," by China, he said.

"It's happening all over Europe, all over Latin America and all over Africa. It's happening in Australia as well, without a doubt."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2018, with the headline 'Australia passes laws against foreign meddling'. Print Edition | Subscribe