Australia's planned foreign interference laws softened, but seen further straining China ties

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull cited "disturbing reports of Chinese meddling" as justification for the new tougher legislation late last year.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull cited "disturbing reports of Chinese meddling" as justification for the new tougher legislation late last year. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - The Australian government softened proposed foreign interference laws on Friday (June 8) to secure parliamentary support for the legislation which threatens to further strain ties with its major trading partner China.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull late last year cited "disturbing reports of Chinese meddling" as justification for the new tougher legislation, though the Bill stalled amid political opposition to several elements.

Keen to push through the Bill, Australia's centre-right government said the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme will now not require executives and lobbyists connected to private multinational companies to register as foreign agents.

"We've narrowed the focus of the Bill with this drafting to companies, particularly, who show and exhibit a degree of control on the part of foreign governments or foreign political organisations," Australian Attorney-General Christian Porter told reporters in Western Australia state.

Australia's opposition Labor party has said it will support the revised Bill.

Andrew Hastie, chairman of Parliament's joint intelligence and security committee, said foreign interference laws must be tightened as authoritarian regimes look to steal US secrets though Canberra's membership of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance.

Five Eyes is an intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the United States.

The foreign interference Bill is likely to be introduced into Parliament soon and enacted by the end of July.

Less than a year ago, Australia-Chinese relations were riding high, with two-way trade last year worth a record A$170 billion.

Roaring Chinese demand for Australian goods and services showed little sign of slowing but Turnbull's comments of Beijing meddling in Canberra's domestic affairs triggered a diplomatic rift that now threatens trade.

"China strongly objected to being singled out by this legislation," said James Laurenceson, deputy director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology in Sydney.

As many as six Australian wine companies, including Treasury Wine Estates - the world's biggest listed winemaker - have faced delays getting products through Chinese customs this year.

Despite Australian efforts to ease the trade restrictions, wine continues to struggle to penetrate the industry's most lucrative market, expected to be worth more than A$1 billion this year. Australian cattle grazers and citrus growers also fear they are being sidelined by China as a result of the row.

VISITS FROZEN

Canberra's attempts to mend ties with China, however, have been hampered by Beijing's reluctance to meet Australian lawmakers. China pays great attention to exchanges with other countries and mutual visits, but Australia has struggled to secure meetings between high-ranking officials.

Australia has asked China to approve a visit by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, a spokesman said on Friday, amid heightened diplomatic tension between the two trading partners. 

Bishop is set to travel to China this year for the latest in a series of annual meetings held between the foreign ministers of the two countries since 2014.  “We are discussing dates with China for our next foreign security dialogue,” Lauren Gianoli, a spokesman for Bishop, told Reuters.  A source familiar with Australia’s diplomatic approach said China would normally respond to the approach “within weeks”. 

Analysts said China was unlikely to formally reject the proposal, but could sit on it indefinitely, making a meeting unfeasible. 

They say China’s response will show if it intends to keep up its frosty approach to Australia, triggered by Canberra’s accusations that Beijing was meddling in its domestic affairs. 

“It would be huge if Bishop does not travel to China this year, it would mark an escalation in the current diplomatic tensions,” said James Laurenceson, an expert on the two nations’ economic ties, at the University of Technology in Sydney.  

Trade Minister Steven Ciobo last month became the first elected Australian official to travel to China in more than seven months, but he was largely shunned during his three-day visit.

Australian and Chinese leaders have met annually since 2014, though the diplomatic row has analysts fearing Turnbull's scheduled visit to Beijing this year may not take place.