US congress takes Australia’s lead on countering Chinese influence

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The US congress will follow the Turnbull government’s lead in cracking down on Chinese political interference by introducing a historic bill today that also ­cements a closer partnership with Australia on the issue.

The bill calls for a major ­report to be delivered to President Donald Trump recommending ways to counter the growth of China’s “sharp power” that is “intended to penetrate or corrupt democratic countries”.

It comes at a time of growing tension between the US and China over trade and Beijing’s militarisation of the South China Sea.

The Australian parliament’s intelligence and security committee is today expected to finally endorse the government’s proposed foreign espionage and influence laws after Malcolm Turnbull threatened to push ahead with legislation in two weeks with or without the committee report.

The proposed US legislation would implement greater transparency and regulation of Chinese-funded enterprises across the US, including academia, and the formulation of a long-term strategy to counter Chinese interference in US politics and society.

The bill, which has been seen by The Australian, says the US will also “enhance co-operation with Australia”, which has “faced acute pressure from the Chinese government and Communist Party’s political influence operations”.

“Australia knows all too well the malign consequences of ­Beijing’s political influence operations,” said US congressman Christopher Smith, who will ­introduce the bill into the House of Representatives today.

“The US and Australia, along with other democratic allies, need to stand together against the most coercive and corrupting elements of such operations and against Beijing’s turn toward a hard authoritarianism domestically — as they are most ­certainly linked.”

Mr Smith, co-chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, added: “The bipartisan legislation we are ­offering will bring into the light operations that are too little understood and too often ­concealed.”

Sources say the bill is likely to win bipartisan support amid growing concern in Washington about China’s efforts to “coerce and corrupt United States interests, institutions, or individuals”.

The bill follows close scrutiny by key congressional leaders, ­including Florida Republican senator Marco Rubio, of Australia’s experience with China and of its proposed foreign interference laws.

US Congressman Christopher Smith.
US Congressman Christopher Smith.

In recent months, China ­experts in the Trump administration have shared briefings with their Australian counterpart in Washington on the issue. Congress has also invited Australian China watchers, including Mr Turnbull’s former senior adviser John Garnaut and controversial academic Clive Hamilton to testify before committees in Washington.

The bill, called Countering the Chinese Government and Communist Party’s Political Influence Operations Act, is modelled on a 1985 Cold War bill that was ­designed to crack down on Soviet and communist disinformation.

It requires the State Department and US intelligence agencies to compile a major unclassified ­report — the first of its kind — on the Chinese government and Communist Party’s political influence operations. That report would be delivered to the President with a range of policy options to counter Chinese influence.

The bill calls for more transparency requirements for Chinese government-funded academic, think-tank, media or “friendship” organisations and formal registration under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

The bill states that: “The ­Chinese government and Communist Party’s global influence operations and disinformation campaigns are increasingly a threat to US interests and those of our allies according to Director of National Intelligence.

“Tangible actions and policy options are needed to curb China’s most provocative and coercive ­efforts to expand its influence and its authoritarian model globally.”

The legislation acknowledges that in the US, China’s attempts to interfere in politics and society has been growing but has often ­received less attention because of the focus on Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 US election.

“The Chinese government and Communist Party use both overt and covert means to target the political and economic elite, the media and public opinion, civil ­society and academia, and members of the Chinese diaspora,” it says.

In relation to the Australian legislation, it is understood that the government was becoming increasingly frustrated at what it believed were deliberate delays by Labor.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security deputy chair Labor MP Anthony Byrne was forced to intervene on the opposition’s behalf and negotiate an extension until today to ensure Labor’s support for the critical national security laws.

The laws were referred to the committee last December.

By Cameron Stewart
The Australian

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