SYDNEY (Reuters) – A proposed Australian law that would give the federal government powers to cancel any agreements local authorities and public institutions make or have made with foreign governments is not aimed at China, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday.
The new legislation comes as Canberra seeks to curtail Beijing’s influence in Australia amid concerns over issues including trade and security, but Morrison denied the new law was designed with China specifically in mind.
“These laws are about Australia’s national sovereign interests,” Morrison said.
Under the new law, the country’s foreign minister would be able to cancel any agreements made by state and territory governments, local councils or public universities with foreign administrations if they “adversely affect Australia’s foreign relations” or are “inconsistent with Australian foreign policy”.
The legislation will also be retrospective, and Morrison said Australia is aware of 130 agreements that government entities have struck with 30 different countries.
Recent controversial deals include lease by the Northern Territories’ government of Port of Darwin to Chinese-owned Landbridge Group in 2015 and a spate of large agricultural land purchases.
Australia’s Victoria state also signed up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2018, a decision Morrison criticised at the time. Details of any projects under consideration have not been made public.
Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews, grappling with an outbreak of COVID-19, hit back at Morrison over the proposed legislation.
“If the prime minister has got time to do these things, then that’s fine for him… I don’t, I’m exclusively focused on fighting this virus,” Andrews told reporters in Melbourne.
Nearly all Australian states have in recent years also signed cooperation deals with Chinese provinces, covering industries such as mining, education and tourism.
Australian universities have also sought to foster closer ties with China. Foreign students are worth about A$35 billion ($25 billion) a year to the Australian economy, with Chinese students accounting for about a third of that figure.
Relations between Australia and its largest trading partner have become increasingly strained, with Australia angering China by calling for an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, barring Huawei Technologies from participating in its 5G network rollout and blocking a recent agricultural deal.
China has targeted Australian exports of wine, barley and beef, and told its students and tourists to avoid travelling to Australia, citing racial discrimination.
On Wednesday, one of China’s most senior diplomats in Australia said there was a “shadow” over the bilateral relationship.
The new legislation excludes commercial corporations and state-owned enterprises, although Australia has already given regulators and the treasurer additional powers to reject foreign takeovers of private companies.
(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)