Australia’s trade minister yesterday said new legislation designed to prevent interference by foreign governments was not aimed at China, comments seen as an attempt by Canberra to diffuse bilateral tensions.
Australia’s relationship with its largest trading partner, has soured since Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull late last year cited Beijing’s meddling as justification for the tough new laws.
As the row affects two-way trade, which hit a record A$170 billion (US$124.7 billion) last year, Australian Minister for Trade and Investment Steven Ciobo sought to minimize the effect of the bill, which was later in the day approved.
“The foreign interference bill, which in time we hope will become legislation, is not about China. It’s about Australia’s national sovereignty,” Ciobo said at a parliament event in Canberra.
“I think those who have attempted to portray it as being about the bilateral relationship with China have done Australia a great injustice,” he said.
Mirroring similar US rules, the Australian measures requires lobbyists for foreign countries to register, and makes them liable for criminal prosecution if they are deemed to be interfering in domestic affairs.
China denies allegations of meddling in Australian affairs, and has accused Canberra of harboring a “Cold War mentality.”
Ciobo’s comments could help to stem further damage to the two countries’ relationship, an analyst said.
“It is a step in the right direction for creating some space to rebuild the relationship,” said Merriden Varrall, director of the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank.
Lawmakers passed bills to crack down on foreign interference, by a vote of 39 to 12.
The legislation widens the definition of espionage offenses 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.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg
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