Ties with China still tense amid meddling spat: Turnbull

Sino-Aussie trade fair in jeopardy as ties sour over law to curb foreign influence in politics

SYDNEY • Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull acknowledged yesterday that legislation aimed at preventing foreign interference in politics had soured ties with China, putting a biennial Australia-China trade fair in jeopardy.

Ties between Australia and its largest trading partner have been strained over the past year, partly over Australian concern about rising Chinese influence, which led to the introduction of legislation banning foreign political donations.

The Australian Financial Review, citing unidentified sources, said this week China had denied visas to Australian government officials to attend a major trade show, denting close bilateral economic ties.

"There certainly has been a degree of tension in the relationship that has arisen because of criticism in China about our foreign interference laws," Mr Turnbull told radio station 3AW in Melbourne.

He added that while his government had "a very strong and respectful relationship" with China, "we do everything we can to ensure any foreign interference in our politics is open and declared".

When pressed on whether government ministers had been declined visas to visit China, Mr Turnbull replied: "I wouldn't go that far," without elaborating.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said reports of visa denials were "unfounded".

"The situation does not exist," he told a regular news briefing.

DEGREE OF TENSION

There certainly has been a degree of tension in the relationship that has arisen because of criticism in China about our foreign interference laws.

AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER MALCOLM TURNBULL

Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo told Reuters discussions about rescheduling the event were under way.

However, two sources with knowledge of the planning for the Australia Week trade event said it was unlikely the gathering, already pushed back from May to July, would go ahead at this late stage.

Last month, Ms Frances Adamson, Australia's most senior civil servant at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said she was still trying to arrange an annual visit to China, some five months after Beijing said it was unable to accommodate her due to scheduling conflicts.

Late last year, Mr Turnbull referred to "disturbing reports about Chinese influence" and warned of foreign powers' "unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated attempts to influence the political process".

The Australian legislation, which is expected to be passed soon, also requires the registration of lobbyists working for foreign countries.

The latest spat has weighed on Australia-China relations, which are now arguably at an even lower point than 2009, when Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu was on trial, and subsequently jailed, in Shanghai on bribery and industrial espionage charges and when then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave an inflammatory speech in Beijing about human rights.

China bought A$93 billion (S$94.5 billion) worth of Australian goods and services last year, but trade ties are only one side of a delicate balancing act for Australia, whose security relationship with the United States has limited how close it gets with China.

Encouraged by the US, Australia has sharpened its criticism of China's activities in the Pacific and the South China Sea.

Australian International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells in January accused China of funding "roads to nowhere" and "useless buildings" in the Pacific, amid fears Canberra's historical dominance in the region was eroding.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2018, with the headline 'Ties with China still tense amid meddling spat: Turnbull'. Print Edition | Subscribe