Australia to Pass Foreign Interference Laws Amid Concerns of Chinese Influence

June 27, 2018 Updated: June 27, 2018

SYDNEY—Australia is expected to pass legislation on June 28 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 be liable for criminal prosecution if they are deemed to be meddling in domestic affairs.

Prime Minister Malcolm 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 concerns over Chinese political donations and relationships between lawmakers and Chinese businesses have intensified in Australia.

“It will come down to whether China is cited when the legislation passes. China will not want to again be singled out,” said James Laurenceson, deputy director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney.

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 will support it. The Senate had been expected to give its approval on June 27, but time was taken over other items, and the legislation was held over until June 28.

Another planned bill, banning foreign political donations, has yet to be introduced in the lower house.

The widening diplomatic rift between Australia and China has affected some of their $125 billion worth in two-way trade, as Australian wine exporters such as Treasury Wine Estates faced delays in getting some products through Chinese customs. 

Despite Australian efforts to ease the curbs, wine is only trickling into the industry’s most lucrative market, expected to be worth more than A$1 billion (about $738 million) this year.

Australian cattle graziers and citrus growers also fear they are being sidelined by China as a result of the row.

Against this backdrop of cooling relations, Chinese telecom firm Huawei has emerged as a lightning rod for Australian security fears.

The world’s largest maker of telecommunications network equipment and the No. 3 smartphone supplier, Huawei has already been virtually shut out of the giant U.S. market because of national security concerns.

Huawei provides 4G equipment to three of Australia’s four major carriers, Vodafone, SingTel’s Optus, and TPG Telecom, but was blocked in 2012 from providing broadband equipment.

Turnbull said the government was still mulling Huawei’s role in the country’s nascent 5G network.

“We’ll continue to consider that and get the best advice on that from our national security agencies,” he told reporters in Canberra.

By Colin Packham, Tom Westbrook, and Christian Shepherd