Australia to pass foreign interference laws with an eye on China
China has denied allegations of meddling in Australian affairs
Australia is expected to pass legislation on Wednesday 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.
“This is all about security and sunlight and sovereignty,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told reporters in Canberra.
“We want to ensure that people who influence and make decisions about our democracy are Australians.”
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.
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.
Having cleared the lower house, the package is expected to pass in the Senate where the main opposition Labor Party has said it would support it.
Another planned bill, banning foreign political donations, has yet to be introduced in the lower house.
Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said lawmaking was a country’s internal affair and he declined to comment, though he did appeal for all countries to “abandon cold war thinking”.
Australia’s legislation has been closely followed in the US, which shares Australian concerns about China’s militarisation of the South China Sea and is engaged in a trade war with Beijing.
A bill was introduced into US Congress earlier this month that would require the Trump administration to deliver a report to Congress within one year on Chinese attempts to influence US politics. The bill isn’t expected to receive a House vote for months, however.
Against this backdrop of cooling relations in Australia, Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei Technologies Co Ltd has emerged as a lightning rod for security fears.
Huawei has already been virtually shut out of the giant US market because of national security concerns.
Australia barred Huawei, the world’s largest telecommunications equipment supplier, on national security grounds from bidding for contracts in 2011 for the national broadband network which is being rolled out countrywide.
According to media reports, the government is now poised to ban Huawei from supplying 5G networks, the next evolution in phone technology that will start commercial services in Australia next year.
John Lord, chairman of Huawei’s Australian unit, 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,” said Lord, a former rear admiral in Australia’s navy.
Turnbull said the government was still mulling Huawei’s role in the country’s nascent 5G network.
Additional reporting by Associated Press and Bloomberg