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Sino-Australian ties

Australian spy chief warns universities about ‘foreign interference’ on campus in veiled reference to China

China is Australia’s largest trading partner, with business spurred by a wide-ranging China-Australia Free Trade Agreement signed in 2015

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 October, 2017, 3:32pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 October, 2017, 3:39pm

Australia’s domestic spy chief has warned that universities need to be “very conscious” of foreign interference in an apparent reference to China’s perceived undercover influence on campuses.

Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) director general Duncan Lewis told politicians in Canberra late on Tuesday that espionage and foreign interference were an “insidious threat”.

Lewis said foreign powers were “clandestinely seeking to shape” the opinion of the Australian public, media organisations and government officials “in order to advance their countries’ own political objectives”.

“We need to be very conscious of the possibilities of foreign interference in our universities,” Lewis said. “That can go to a range of issues. It can go to the behaviour of foreign students, it can go to the behaviour of foreign consular staff in relation to university lecturers, it can go to atmospherics in universities.”

We need to be very conscious of the possibilities of foreign interference in our universities
Duncan Lewis, ASIO director general

Lewis did not specifically name China in his late night testimony to a parliamentary inquiry, but when questioned about China’s involvement, he said he “strongly identified” with comments made by a senior government official this month that universities should protect themselves from Chinese influence.

Asked last week about the Communist Party’s overseas activities in places like Australia, a senior official said Chinese people living overseas had to respect the laws of the countries in which they lived.

China is Australia’s largest trading partner, with business spurred by a wide-ranging China-Australia Free Trade Agreement signed in 2015.

Relations between Australia and China have been tested in recent months after the United States, Japan and Australia voiced concerns over Beijing’s unilateral actions in the disputed South China Sea, including continued artificial land building.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop stressed last week international students were welcome but Australia was a democracy and “we don’t want to see freedom of speech curbed in any way involving foreign students or foreign academics”.

According to state broadcaster ABC, Beijing’s intrusion into Western universities has sparked a push by Australia’s closest allies, including the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, for a more coordinated response to the tactics.

While foreign meddling was a major concern for ASIO, so was the heightened terror threat which was placing “considerable pressure” on the domestic spy agency.