Australia Passes Anti-Foreign Meddling Laws in Message to China

(Bloomberg) -- Australian lawmakers overwhelmingly passed bills to crack down on foreign interference, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull saying they’re needed to stop reported meddling by China and other nations in the nation’s government, media and universities.

The legislation toughens penalties for espionage and requires people or organizations acting in the interest of overseas powers to register and disclose their ties. It was passed with 39 votes in favor with 12 against. A similar bill was introduced in the U.S. Congress that would mandate a report on Chinese attempts to influence American politics, and other Western nations may soon follow with their own regulatory measures.

The laws risk exacerbating diplomatic tensions between China and Australia, which have soured this year after Turnbull cited reports that organizations affiliated with Beijing had attempted to influence national affairs as a catalyst for the bills. As the most China-dependent developed economy, Australia potentially has a lot to lose should relations deteriorate further: Exporters have already said the strained ties were behind delayed shipments into the ports of its biggest trading partner.

Over the past decade, China has become Australia’s top trading partner, biggest provider of foreign students and largest source of tourism revenue. China accounted for 29 percent of Australia’s two-way commerce in 2016, nearly double from a decade earlier, as it snatched up Australia’s iron ore and coal to feed a construction boom.

China has denied interfering in Australia’s affairs. Cheng Jingye, China’s ambassador to Australia, on June 19 called for an end to the “Cold War mentality” and bias and bigotry affecting the relationship.

In making the case to pass anti-foreign interference legislation, Turnbull in December cited reports that an Australian lawmaker both received a payment from a Chinese-born businessman and warned him that Australia’s intelligence agencies were tapping his phones. He also noted possible meddling by Russia, Iran and North Korea.

Turnbull particularly angered China by telling reporters in broken Mandarin that the Australian people should “stand up and assert their sovereignty” -- adapting a phrase attributed to Chairman Mao Zedong in the 1940s.

The Australian legislation will widen 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.

‘Unprecedented Levels’

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin has welcomed the legislation amid what he’s called “unprecedented levels of foreign activity.”

The legislation has been closely followed in the U.S., which shares Australia’s concerns about China’s militarization of the South China Sea and investment in sensitive industries.

China is making a coordinated effort to influence U.S. affairs through surveillance, New Jersey Republican Chris Smith said in an interview from Washington on Monday.

“It’s an all-out effort,” by China, he said. “It’s happening all over Europe, all over Latin America and all over Africa. It’s happening in Australia as well, without a doubt.”

Along with six co-sponsors, Smith introduced a bill into Congress earlier this month that would require the Trump administration to deliver a report to Congress within one year on Chinese attempts to influence U.S. politics, “including efforts to corrupt United States governmental or nongovernmental institutions or individuals.” The bill isn’t expected to receive a House vote for months, however.

Chinese officials may be uncomfortable with the Australian laws because other liberal, Western democracies could follow suit, said John Blaxland, head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University in Canberra.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.