Australia's 'tensions' with Beijing
If there have been rising tensions between Canberra and Beijing, the recent "anti-influence" measures are the reason. Even Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has admitted as much amid reports that Australian ministers had been refused Chinese visas. In December last year, Turnbull's government announced multiple new laws aimed at tightening Australia's security and electoral processes, including a ban on foreign donations. This followed a series of scandals involving China's alleged influence in Australian politics. True, Turnbull has denied allegations Australians had been refused entry to China but admitted that the two countries had drifted apart following the introduction of the new legislation.
"There has been a degree of tension in the relationship which has arisen because of criticism in China of our foreign interference laws, but it is very important that the Australian government ensures only Australians are influencing our political processes," he said.
According to the Prime Minister, the relationship between China and Australia was very "deep and extensive," saying he regularly corresponded with Chinese President Xi Jinping. But earlier this week, there were reports alleging Beijing was in talks with the government of the South Pacific island of Vanuatu to host a permanent Chinese military base, less than 2,500 kilometres from the Australian coast. Both Vanuatu and China have denied the reports, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang accusing Australia of "stirring up troubles".
The proposed anti-influence legislation referenced by Turnbull has yet to pass into law. The proposals would see a ban on all foreign political donations to Australians, criminalise attempts by foreign actors to influence the government, as well as giving law enforcement agencies greater powers. Though Turnbull repeated the claim on Wednesday that the laws were not targeted at any one country, opponents have been quick to frame the legislation as "anti-Chinese." But the latest dispute could, in fact, be the beginning of a more sustainable relationship between China and Australia if it was resolved properly.
In recent years, the Australian government has found itself caught between its longstanding military alliance with the United States and its growing economic dependence on China. China is easily the largest buyer of Australian exports, valued at $72 billion in 2016, as well as the biggest source of Australia's imported goods. Meanwhile, Australia's relationship with Washington has grown complicated under a distracted administration led by US President Donald Trump, who has engaged in a more transactional relationship towards US allies in the region. Naturally, a senior Australian official observed that the most important diplomatic task for Australia going forward was to "deepen and diversify" its security and diplomatic links with a range of countries.