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International relations

China interfered in Australian politics -- secret probe

Investigation ordered by Turnbull revealed decade-long infiltration campaign

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, center, welcomes Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to Beijing in 2016. Accusations of espionage and political meddling have brought ties to their "lowest level."   © Getty Images

MELBOURNE -- A secret Australian investigation uncovered a campaign by China to infiltrate the country's major political parties, a news outlet has reported, in the latest allegation of Chinese interference likely to strain relations between the trading partners.

The probe ordered by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull revealed a decade-long effort by the Chinese Communist Party to compromise Australia's political process and influence policymaking, 9 News reported on Monday.

The findings of the review by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet reportedly prompted Turnbull's proposal last year of pending anti-foreign interference laws that have tested ties with Beijing.

Turnbull unveiled the new laws -- which would ban foreign political donations, expand the definition of espionage and create a register of foreign lobbyists -- while warning of attempts by "foreign powers" to influence Australian democracy. While insisting the legislation was not aimed at a specific country, Turnbull, the leader of the center-right Liberal Party, cited reports of alleged Chinese interference as a justification for the legislation.

Beijing blasted Turnbull's remarks at the time as catering to "irresponsible reports by some Australian media that are without principle and full of bias against China."

Separately, Fairfax Media reported on Monday that former Foreign Minister Bob Carr, who leads a think tank established by a businessman with links to Beijing, had asked a senator to look into the background of the government adviser who led the probe.

Australia's ties with China, its biggest trading partner, have reached a nadir over alleged meddling. In recent months, Beijing has been accused of interference including cultivating Manchurian candidates for office, kidnapping dissidents, leaning on local Chinese-language media and spying on Chinese students studying here.

"I think we can be well protected, we can protect ourselves if we understand where it is that the CCP is trying to steer our influential people and just be very alert to not being steered in that direction," Merriden Varrall, director of the East Asia Programme at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Last week, Andrew Hastie, a Liberal Party MP, unleashed shock waves when he used parliamentary privilege to accuse a high-profile Chinese-born businessman of involvement in the bribery of a high-level United Nations official. Chau Chak Wing, who has launched defamation proceedings against a number of media organizations for tying him to the Chinese government, has vehemently denied the allegation.

The Global Times, a newspaper with links to the Chinese Communist Party, said in a recent editorial that Australia's relations with China had dropped to "their lowest level" and were now "among the worst of all Western nations."

Meanwhile, Geoff Raby, a former Australian ambassador to Beijing, earlier this month called for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to be sacked over her failure to visit China for more than two years, as well as comments on the South China Sea and democracy that have angered Beijing.

In an apparent effort to alleviate escalating tensions, Bishop met with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi last week for talks on the sidelines of the Group of 20 foreign ministers meeting in Buenos Aires. While Bishop subsequently described the discussions as "very warm and positive," the Chinese foreign minister struck a less conciliatory tone. Wang said Australia should "take off the tinted glasses" and be positive toward China's growth if it wanted to improve ties.

"We do both need each other and we do both need the relationship to continue to be positive," Varrall said. "So while there may be tensions and moments of hate, I don't think either side wants this to turn into something really serious."

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