Australia passed sweeping foreign interference laws not-so-subtly targeted at China

Lintao Zhang/Getty ImagesAustralian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull views a guard of honour during a welcoming ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People on April 14, 2016 in Beijing, China.
  • Australia has passed sweeping counter-intelligence laws that broaden the offenses of espionage and foreign influence.
  • Though Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said the laws don’t target any one country, he has previously talked about “disturbing reports about Chinese influence”.
  • By Turnbull’s own admission, the new laws have spurred tensions with China, which has accused Australia of having a “Cold War mentality”.
  • The laws were reportedly prompted by a classified report that found attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to influence all levels of Australian politics.

Australia passed sweeping foreign interference laws on Thursday that have been one of the most contentious pillars of deteriorating relations with China in recent months.

The laws broaden the definition of espionage and ban foreign agents from influencing politicians, civil society organisations, media, and ethnic groups. Individuals will also be required to register if they’re acting on behalf of a foreign power. Some offenses covered by the laws are punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

“Foreign powers are making unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated attempts to influence the political process, both here and abroad,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said when he introduced the laws in December 2017, though he made a point of saying he was not speaking about any one country.

But shortly afterwards Turnbull cited “disturbing reports about Chinese influence” and called out an Australian politician for being a “clear case” of someone who took foreign money and then allegedly promoted China’s political views.

In response, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said its government had made a “serious complaint” with Australia and that the claim of foreign interference “poisons the atmosphere of the China-Australia relationship.” The sensationalist state-run Global Times reportedly carried an editorial claiming “[Australia] is beginning to look like a piece of chewing gum stuck to the bottom of China’s shoe.”

In April, Turnbull conceded publicly that “there has been a degree of tension in the relationship” because of the introduction of the foreign interference laws.

And this week a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry answered questions about the laws by saying: “We hope that all countries could cast off Cold War mindset and strengthen exchanges and cooperation on the basis of mutual respect and equal treatment.”

It’s not the first time the idea of the Cold War has been invoked in discussion around Australia’s current national security.

Duncan Lewis, director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), recently told a parliamentary hearing that that espionage and interference activities have reached new and dangerous heights.

“The grim reality is that there are more foreign intelligence officers today than during the Cold War, and they have more ways of attacking us,” Lewis said.

Though the federal government had remained hush on the classified report that spurred its foreign interference laws, a number of media outlets have reported that a year-long inquiry found attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to influence Australian politics at all levels. The report also described China as the country of most concern to Australia.

Earlier this year, the author of the report, John Garnaut, testified to the US House Armed Services Committe about attempts to interference and influence Australian politics and society. Since then, two bills have been introduced in Congress to uncover Chinese political influence campaigns.

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