Turnbull government carefully tackles Chinese interference

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The Turnbull government has expressed in strong terms its displeasure with the way Chinese diplomats deal with Chinese citizens in Australia.

The Chinese embassy in Canberra has been told by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that it has no right to harass or threaten any Chinese national in Australia whom Beijing considers to be corrupt or to have taken corruptly obtained wealth out of China. Although the Turnbull government sympathises with Beijing in its wish to prosecute anyone who has illegally moved assets or broken the law in China, it insists the Chinese must operate through the Australian government and our law enforcement agencies.

The chief Chinese intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security, is very active in Australia, and many things that Beijing does within Australia go beyond the normal bounds of diplomatic behaviour, according to government sources.

The Turnbull government also holds grave concerns about the way Chinese diplomatic establishments — the embassy and the various consulates — relate to the community of Chinese students in Australia, as well as to the ethnic Chinese diaspora of citizens.

Any attempt, for example, by a Chinese diplomat, or someone working for Chinese diplomats, to interfere with a demonstration or political activity that is lawful in Australia constitutes unacceptable foreign interference, in the view of Australia’s security and law enforcement agencies.

The Turnbull government has repeatedly needed to dress down China’s ambassador and other diplomats over the conduct of Chinese diplomatic missions within Australia.

One of the most publicised incidents occurred at a meeting of the Kimberley Process that Australia hosted in Perth last month. The Kimberley Process is an international group that addresses the trade in conflict diamonds.

Australia, which was chairing the meeting, had invited a Taiwanese diamond trading authority to attend as a guest. This was consistent with previous practice.

Beijing objected to this because it is trying to intimidate Taiwan and strangle its international space.

China had two entirely reasonable courses of action available to it. One was to register its objections to the Taiwanese presence with the Australian government, which it did.

The other was, if it didn’t get the answer it wanted, to refuse to attend the meeting.

Instead, the official Chinese delegation, including Chinese diplomats, shouted down the Aboriginal welcome-to-country ceremony at the start of proceedings, then shouted down the start of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s speech.

They then recruited some African delegates to join in the shouting down until finally the organisers asked the Taiwanese delegation to leave, setting up bilateral meetings for the delegates instead.

Anyone who thinks the Chinese government and its agents have been unfairly criticised in the past week or two should ask themselves two questions.

What would their reaction be if US diplomats behaved in this way? And what would the reaction of the Chinese government be if Australian diplomats behaved this way in China?

As a result of the Perth meeting the Chinese ambassador in Canberra was called in by DFAT and reprimanded.

He apologised in a personal capacity, but not officially, to Bishop and to the indigenous representative. However, the official reaction in Beijing was unrepentant.

The plain refusal of Chinese diplomats in Australia to abide by the normal diplomatic conventions is a serious concern to the Turnbull government.

If anything, DFAT needs to be stronger in making it plain to Chinese diplomats that the rules of diplomatic convention apply to them.

In parliament during the past week both sides of politics have flung a good deal of abuse at each other over political donations from Chinese sources that seemed to have been made in the hope of influencing Australian politicians to take a series of policy positions in accord with Chinese government policy.

Most of this arises from a very useful series of revelations in a joint ABC Four Corners-Fairfax Media investigation of Chinese government influence in Australian politics.

The Chinese ambassador this week denounced the investigative series, which is a good sign of its accuracy and importance.

Some of the politicians’ allegations have been overblown.

It is impossible to sustain the idea that Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon as defence minister was influenced in a pro-Chinese direction by the fact, which was entirely unknown to him, that one of the donors to his campaign had alleged links to a figure in Chinese military intelligence.

I covered Fitzgibbon’s time in the defence portfolio in great detail and he was an extremely strong proponent of the US-Australia alliance.

The 2009 defence white paper that Fitzgibbon delivered was certainly the toughest minded government document in relation to the Chinese strategic challenge that any modern defence minister has produced.

Nonetheless, Bishop, who has led the charge for the Coalition, emerges from it all as a strong figure who consistently has called out the Chinese government over its strategic aggression within the region — and also, when necessary, called out the behaviour of Chinese diplomats in Australia.

In a government that has had too many personnel changes, she and Attorney-General George Brandis have been two strong proponents of national security action internationally and at home.

Malcolm Turnbull himself, as he has read increasingly deeply into the intelligence, has become much more hard-headed than he once was about the Chinese government.

The overall efforts — conventional and unconventional, public and covert, financial and non-financial — by the Chinese government to interfere with Australian politics are of serious and growing concern to the Turnbull government as well as to the Bill Shorten-led opposition.

The government in Canberra has two major institutional responses under way and there is a good chance that we will get useful action out of both.

This is not to suggest that we will solve the problem altogether, but that we will take action to combat it.

Those two processes are a review being conducted by Brandis of the espionage and other laws designed to stop foreign interference in our politics, and an analogous review and production of legislation by Scott Ryan, the Special Minister of State, to address foreign donations to Australian politics.

These are incredibly complex questions and, although the problem is chronic and urgent, the Turnbull government is right to take some time to get this stuff right.

Brandis has a weight of existing legislation to review and pos­sibly modernise, including legis­lation relating to foreign espio­nage and treason offences as well as offences of foreign interference under the Crimes Act, and several related provisions such as those relating to money laundering.

He is going to look particularly closely at the US example of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

A great deal that is going on here is an effort to produce much greater transparency. Requiring that people acting as agents of a foreign government, whether they are foreign citizens or Australian citizens or both, may be imperfect but is surely a huge step forward so that if people are making arguments, donations or whatever, their institutional positions can be properly factored into the evaluation of such actions.

Brandis will shortly leave to attend a Five Eyes intelligence meeting in Canada — the five are the US, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. He plans to hold extensive consultations with US colleagues, then to go to London for similar talks there.

The government is a long way from deciding what its response will be, but it is almost certain to include new legislation and new institutional arrangements.

Complex as the task confronting Brandis may be, Ryan’s is almost more difficult.

It would be easy at some level to outlaw certain types of foreign donations tomorrow, but there are two huge problems.

Would such legislation withstand High Court scrutiny, and would it be in any event at all effective?

It is also the case that third parties — such as GetUp! — do not face even the registration and disclosure obligations of political parties but campaign directly in Australian politics and can receive enormous amounts of foreign funding.

The other response, in a sense, of the Turnbull government to Chinese government actions in Australia and within the region is to continue to strengthen the US alliance. This is even more important because Donald Trump has introduced uncertainty into US strategic policy, although unreli­ability was introduced by Barack Obama.

The Turnbull government is active in the US alliance in order to achieve Australian national interests.

At the recent Australia-US Ministerial talks in Sydney involving US Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Australians were impressed with the grip and institutional solidity of their American interlocutors.

Three subjects dominated the talks — North Korea, the South China Sea and international terrorism.

China was at the heart of the first two. Every intelligent person in any element of Australian policy wants a good, fruitful and friendly relationship with China. But all Australian politicians worth anything, and overwhelmingly the Australian public, do not want the Chinese government interfering in our politics.

These past few weeks have shown the Australian political system responding seriously to this challenge, though there are mountains of work ahead.

By GREG SHERIDAN
The Australian

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