(Bloomberg) -- China summoned Australia’s ambassador in Beijing amid friction between the two nations after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government accused the Asian powerhouse of political meddling.
Ambassador Jan Adams was called in by China’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs on Dec. 8, while three days later China’s ambassador to Australia held talks with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Ties have been strained since Australia last week introduced laws to crack down on interference by overseas powers, banning foreign political donations and toughening up definitions of treason and espionage. Turnbull singled out China’s influence when his government pressured opposition Senator Sam Dastyari to quit over his ties with a Chinese businessman who has links to the Communist Party.
Other Western nations, including the U.S., U.K. and Germany, have expressed concern about Chinese spying and propaganda activities. In New Zealand, there is growing concern that China may be attempting to influence domestic politics via local Chinese communities, and intelligence agencies last week highlighted the dangers of espionage by foreign states.
The stakes for maintaining cordial ties with Beijing are higher for Australia, which is the most China-dependent developed economy. Chinese demand for iron ore and coal has helped power Australia’s 26-year run of recession-free growth.
Turnbull’s so-called foreign interference legislation, which is yet to pass parliament, will require people or organizations acting in the interests of foreign powers to register and disclose their ties. Turnbull has denied the legislation is targeted at any one country, but said earlier this month the case of Senator Dastyari was a prime example of Chinese influence in Australian politics.
The Labor senator was recorded in June 2016 defending China’s military buildup in the South China Sea, contradicting government policy and that of his party. Dastyari’s credibility also came under attack after he acknowledged a Chinese company had paid a A$1,670 ($1,280) travel bill, and that he’d warned a Chinese businessman that his phones were being tapped by Australian intelligence agencies.
After China criticized the proposed legislation and “irresponsible remarks” made by Australian government officials, Turnbull hit back.
“Modern China was founded in 1949 with these words: ‘The Chinese people have stood up’,” Turnbull told reporters at the weekend, switching between Mandarin and English. “So we say, the Australian people stand up.”
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he was “astounded” by the remarks.
The nation also lashed out last month after Australia published its foreign policy white paper and warned of “the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s activities” in the South China Sea. The foreign ministry labeled those comments as “irresponsible.”
In publishing the paper, Turnbull acknowledged the tightrope that Australia walks, between supporting its main security ally the U.S. and biggest trading partner China.
“This is the first time in our history that our dominant trading partner is not also a dominant security partner,” he said.
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