Australia’s prime minister has admitted bubbling tension with China over allegations of Beijing meddling in its domestic politics, but denied there was a “deep chill” in relations after reports that ministers were being refused visas.
Bilateral ties suffered late last year when Australia announced wide-ranging reforms to legislation on espionage and foreign interference, singling out China as a focus of concern.
It sparked a furious response from Beijing, which summoned Australia’s ambassador and attacked local media stories about infiltration, describing them as fabrications based on hysteria and paranoia.
Relations have yet to thaw, with another spat in January prompting Beijing to lodge a formal diplomatic protest after a senior Australian minister called Chinese infrastructure projects in the Pacific “white elephants”.
The Australian Financial Review reported on Thursday that China’s leadership was so incensed by Canberra’s rhetoric that it was regularly refusing visas to ministers and a major annual showcase of Australian trade and business in China looked certain to be abandoned this year.
The newspaper characterised it as a “deep chill” with the country’s top trading partner, but Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was keen to play down the story.
“There has certainly been a degree of tension in the relationship that has arisen because of criticism in China about our foreign interference laws,” he told the radio station 3AW in Melbourne.
“All I would say is there have clearly been some misunderstandings and mischaracterisations of our foreign interference legislation in the Chinese media.”
He added that although his government had “a very strong and respectful relationship” with China, “we do everything we can to ensure any foreign interference in our politics is open and declared”.
Reforms to espionage and foreign interference laws were proposed after Australia’s spy agency raised concerns that China was interfering in local institutions and using the political donations system to gain access.
Meanwhile, Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo said discussions about rescheduling the trade fair were under way.
However, a source with knowledge of the planning for the Australia Week trade event said it was unlikely the gathering, already pushed back from May to July, would go ahead at this late stage.
“There’s no way of knowing that things would change sufficiently for [Australia] Week to go ahead,” the source said.
Last month, Frances Adamson, Australia’s most senior civil servant at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said she was still trying to arrange an annual visit to China, some five months after Beijing said it was unable to accommodate her due to scheduling conflicts.
The Australian Financial Review noted that Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop had not visited China for more than two years and that Turnbull last visited the Chinese mainland to attend the G20 summit in September 2016.
When pressed on whether ministers had been declined visas to visit China, Turnbull replied: “I wouldn’t go that far”, while declining to give a more specific answer.
Additional reporting by Reuters