When pushback comes to shove in Australia’s China relationship

When pushback comes to shove in Australia’s China relationship, by Paul Maley.

Australia’s relationship with China has entered an unprecedented new era.

New laws introduced this week that crack down on foreign interference in Australia’s political processes are the clearest marker yet that Canberra and Beijing now see each other in very different terms. At their heart, the laws represent more than an attempt to stamp out hostile and covert behaviour. They are an attempt by the Turnbull government to reframe one of Australia’s most complicated bilateral relationships. …

In Australia, a widespread view now exists that Beijing has been meddling directly — and effectively — in Australian political life, corrupting the integrity of its institutions and diminishing the quality of the public debate. …

“The biggest single problem is that a lot of Australians have not done their homework, they have not done the hard yards to get their head around what the Chinese are doing and what they are saying,” says Ross Babbage, a former analyst with the Office of National Assessments. “A lot of people assume we’re looking at a benign power. We are not.”

The popular view is starting to change. The Dastyari affair, repeated warnings from ASIO about the scope of foreign — read Chinese — meddling in domestic affairs and a string of critical infrastructure investments, raising the spectre of Chinese espionage, are displacing that economic narrative. A darker, more suspicious image of China threatens to take its place. The risk is that anti-China sentiment will spread, complicating the transaction of Australian foreign policy with our largest trading partner. …

It is unthinkable that China would tolerate the sort of foreign meddling in its affairs that Beijing’s security services have engaged in so freely here. But tensions are likely to get worse before they get better. …

Chen Yonglin, a Chinese diplomat who defected to Australia in 2005, … says in the US the Chinese have been far more cautious, in part because of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Every now and then, the FBI or CIA call people in to answer questions, and occasionally they establish a case of espionage. “This is a deterrence for the Chinese. they have to be more cautious,” he says. In Australia, he says, it has been open slather.