Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has admitted that relations with China are tense over Australian allegations of Chinese interference in Canberra’s internal affairs, but rejected the existence of a “deep chill” in bilateral ties.
“There certainly has been a degree of tension in the relationship that has arisen because of criticism in China about our foreign interference laws,” Turnbull told the radio station 3AW in Melbourne on Thursday, blaming the Chinese media for misrepresenting Canberra’s new foreign interference legislation.
The Beijing-Canberra relations took a dive in December last year when Turnbull expressed concerns about alleged “Chinese influence” in Australia’s domestic politics.
Turnbull, who was citing Australian media reports, further alleged at the time that the Communist Party of China had attempted to influence politics in Australia either through espionage or financial donations.
It was unclear whether the Australian government subsequently reached an official conclusion about the allegations of Chinese meddling or whether it continued to entirely rely on the Australian media reports.
Turnbull nevertheless proceeded to announce wide-ranging new reforms to espionage and foreign interference legislation, and singled out China — Australia’s biggest trading partner — as a focus of concern.
Three days after Turnbull’s remarks, Beijing summoned Australia’s ambassador to China to protest Canberra’s allegations. It further lambasted local media stories about “infiltration” as fabrications based on hysteria and paranoia.
Bilateral relations were further damaged in January when a senior Australian minister called Chinese infrastructure projects in the Pacific “white elephants,” prompting Beijing to file a formal diplomatic protest.
But Turnbull sounded both optimistic about relations on Thursday, saying he was “very confident that any misunderstandings will be resolved.” The Australian prime minister added that his government had “a very strong and respectful relationship” with China, but that Canberra does “everything” to ensure any “foreign interference in our politics is open and declared.”
Earlier on Thursday, the Australian Financial Review had reported that China’s leadership was so infuriated by Canberra’s rhetoric that it was regularly refusing visas to Australian ministers, describing the situation as a “deep chill” in bilateral relations.
When asked whether ministers had been declined visas to visit China, Turnbull replied that he “wouldn’t go that far,” evading a direct answer.
Australia and neighboring New Zealand are among nearly a third of states worldwide that do not block foreign donations to domestic political parties.
Back in June last year, Fairfax Media and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported that a concerted campaign had purportedly been mounted by China to “infiltrate” Australian politics in an attempt to promote Chinese interests.