Australia to pass foreign interference bill amid tensions with China

SYDNEY,  (Reuters) – Australia is expected to pass new legislation today aimed at preventing interference by foreign governments, a move likely to further stoke tensions with major trading partner China.

Mirroring similar laws in the United States, Australia’s Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme requires lobbyists working for foreign countries to register as foreign agents, who could also face criminal prosecution if they are deemed to be meddling in Canberra’s affairs.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last year referred to “disturbing reports about Chinese influence” as justification for the bill, which has strained diplomatic and trade ties with China.

China has denied allegations of meddling in Australian affairs and launched a rare diplomatic protest.

“It will come down to whether China is cited when the legislation passes. China will not want to again be singled out,” said James Laurenceson, deputy director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney.

Ahead of the legislation’s expected passage, Chinese telecom firm Huawei Technologies Co Ltd mounted a lobbying campaign to secure its participation in a 5G telecommunications roll-out and to allay Australian fears that the company poses a security risk.

The foreign interference legislation was approved by Australia’s House of Representatives on Tuesday.

It is expected to pass in the Senate where the main opposition Labor Party has said it will support the legislation after several revisions in recent months.

Another law banning foreign political donations has yet to be introduced in the lower house.

Turnbull acknowledged in April that relations with China, which included two-way trade of A$170 billion ($125.60 billion) last year, had soured because of the legislation.

Six Australian wines, including the world’s biggest-listed winemaker Treasury Wine Estates Ltd, and Pernod Ricard , have faced delays in getting products through Chinese customs.

Despite Australian efforts to ease the curbs, wine continues to struggle to penetrate the industry’s most lucrative market, expected to be worth more than A$1 billion this year.

Australian cattle graziers and citrus growers also fear they are being sidelined by China as a result of the row.

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