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Australian leader makes China focus of upcoming election, but risks backlash – Metro US

Australian leader makes China focus of upcoming election, but risks backlash

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: British PM Johnson meets Australian counterpart
FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: British PM Johnson meets Australian counterpart Morrison in London

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has put his government’s tough stance on China at the forefront as he heads toward an election campaign, a strategy that security analysts warned could backfire on the national interest.

Behind in the polls, and with an election due by May, Morrison has attacked the opposition Labor party as being “soft” on China, viewed by two-thirds of Australians as more of a security threat than an economic partner.

Labor has said his comments break a tradition of bi-partisanship on national security issues. Commentators said there was no sign that the opposition differed from the government on China policy.

“My government will never be the preferred partner of a foreign government that has chosen to intimidate this country and has sought to threaten this country… I will never be their candidate,” Morrison told parliament on Wednesday, one of the last sitting days before an election campaign is triggered.

In a fiery parliamentary session, Morrison said the Chinese government “has picked their horse and he is sitting right there”, referring to Labor leader Anthony Albanese.

John Blaxland, head of the strategic and defence studies centre at the Australian National University, said other countries in the region will watch the political campaign closely, and the Morrison government’s tactics could backfire if they worsen relations with China, the country’s major export partner.

“They are playing with fire doing this. They are getting a little desperate. The Albanese opposition has been in lock step on national security issues,” he told Reuters.

At the end of January, a major poll, Newspoll, which found the Morrison government trailing, also showed voters rated Albanese ahead on handling the pandemic, the major issue that would influence their vote, while Morrison was ahead on handling China.

However, dealing with “the threat from China” was nominated by only 10% of voters as a priority.

MINIMISING DIFFERENCES

Five years ago, Labor was embarrassed by links uncovered between a senator who was forced to resign and a Chinese political donor.

Labor has since sought to minimise any difference with the government in its position on China, with which Canberra has had an increasingly strained diplomatic relationship.

On Monday, the head of Australia’s spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, assured a parliament committee the national election due in May was free of foreign influence, after his agency foiled an attempt by an unnamed country to gain influence with candidates.

Director-General Mike Burgess said the intelligence agency does not harbour security concerns over any Labor party candidates, and sought to distance ASIO from politicians seeking to use the foreign interference issue in their election campaigns.

Albanese criticised Morrison’s attack on Wednesday and said Labor, like the government, has opposed China’s unofficial sanctions on Australia’s resources, wine and agriculture, because this was in the national interest.

Liberal ministers have countered that Labor has not always supported the Morrison government’s foreign policy on China, pointing to attacks by former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating on the AUKUS defence alliance with Britain and the United States to transfer nuclear submarine technology to Australia.

A senior foreign affairs official was asked by Labor in a parliamentary committee hearing whether a shift away from bi-partisanship on national security could benefit Beijing.

Justin Hayhurst, deputy secretary of the geostrategic group in the foreign affairs department, replied: “The Chinese system seeks to exploit social and other divisions in countries to pursue its interest.”

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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