Australian PM says foreign interference bill has soured ties with China

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In this March 27, 2018 file photo, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaks to the media during a news conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch/via Reuters)

SYDNEY — Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull acknowledged on Thursday that legislation aimed at preventing foreign interference in politics had soured ties with China, after a report Australian ministers were being denied Chinese visas.

Relations between Australia and its largest trading partner have been strained over the past year, partly over Australian concern about rising Chinese influence, which led to the introduction of legislation banning foreign political donations.

The Australian Financial Review, citing unidentified sources, said this week China had denied visas to Australian government officials to attend a major annual trade show, denting close economic ties between the two countries.

“There’s clearly been some tension in the relationship following the introduction of our legislation about foreign interference but I’m very confident that any misunderstandings will be resolved,” Turnbull told 3AW Radio in Melbourne.

He declined to comment when asked about the report that Australian ministers were being denied visas. The foreign ministry did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

Late last year, Turnbull referred to “disturbing reports about Chinese influence” and warned of foreign powers’ “unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated attempts to influence the political process”.

The Australian legislation, which is expected to be passed soon, also requires the registration of lobbyists working for foreign countries.

China bought A$93 billion ($70 billion) worth of Australian goods and services last year, but trade ties are only one side of a delicate balancing act for Australia, whose unshakeable security relationship with the United States has limited how close it gets with China.

Encouraged by the United States, Australia has sharpened its criticism of China’s activities in the Pacific and the South China Sea.

Australia’s International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells in January accused China of funding “roads to nowhere” and “useless buildings” in the Pacific, amid fears Canberra’s historical dominance in the region was eroding. — Editing by Robert Birsel