Australia`s `Russia` problem? It`s China
January-March 2018
By: Rory Medcalf

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney General George Brandis have initiated a comprehensive review of Australia’s espionage and foreign interference laws. This review is vital, as these laws seem flimsy and outdated. It is essential to specifically define what about foreign interference counts as criminal, what is more in the realm of unacceptable diplomatic practice and what is merely a side effect of the many benefits of global and regional connectedness.

On donations, it seems obvious that Australia needs to get foreign donations out of its political system. Both major parties (and indeed the Greens) have committed to the idea, and the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has looked closely into it. Again, this needs to be a negotiated, bipartisan solution. There is a rare opportunity now for consensus on this much-needed reform, in the interests of national security, credibility and self-respect.

Foreign interference in Australia is not solely a national security issue. It is a fundamental test of Australian social inclusiveness, cohesion, equity and democracy that we ensure all in this country have freedom of expression, freedom from fear, and protection from untoward intervention by a foreign power.

In many respects, 2017 seemed to a bruising year for Australia’s relations with China. But rather than a crisis, this is a long-overdue reality check, from which a healthier and more sustainable relationship can emerge. What we are really seeing in Australia is a new maturity in relations with China, moving beyond the base motivations of fear and greed that have too often distorted national conversation about one of the world’s great civilizational powers.

The new China narrative is informed by Australian sovereignty, confidence and vigilance – and an aspiration to build a durable relationship grounded in noninterference. Now, the Australian political class is much more willing, more so than even a year ago, to draw the line about unacceptable levels of foreign influence. The challenge now is to avoid complacency. This problem is out in the open, but it is far from over.

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