Australia foreign interference bill not aimed at China: trade minister

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s trade minister said on Thursday new legislation designed to prevent interference by foreign governments is not aimed at China, comments seen as an attempt by Canberra to diffuse bilateral tension.

FILE PHOTO - Australian Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Steven Ciobo, attends a news conference of an Australian Football League event in Shanghai, China May 17, 2018. REUTERS/Aly Song

Australia’s relationship with its largest trading partner, China, has soured since Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull late last year cited Beijing’s meddling as justification for the tough new laws.

As the row impacts two-way trade, which hit a record $170 billion ($125 billion) last year, Minister for Trade Steven Ciobo sought to minimize the impact of the bill that was approved by the Senate on Thursday.

“The foreign interference bill, which in time we hope will become legislation, is not about China. It’s about Australia’s national sovereignty,” Ciobo said at an event in Parliament in Canberra.

“I think those who have attempted to portray it as being about the bilateral relationship with China have done Australia a great injustice,” Ciobo said, hours before the Senate approved the legislation.

Under the law, lobbyists for foreign countries will be required to register and they will be liable for criminal prosecution if they are deemed to be interfering in domestic affairs.

Australia’s attorney general, Christian Porter, said the new legislation filled an urgent need.

“Australia must have a robust, modern legislative framework to ensure our law enforcement and national security agencies are sufficiently empowered to investigate and disrupt malicious foreign interference,” Porter said in an emailed statement.

China denies meddling in Australian affairs, and has accused Canberra of harboring a “Cold War mentality”.

Ciobo’s comments could help to stem further damage to the relationship between the two countries, an analyst said.

“It is a step in the right direction for creating some space to rebuild the relationship,” said Merriden Varrall, director of the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute think-tank.

The widening diplomatic rift between Australia and China has affected Australian wine exports, including products from Treasury Wine Estates TWE.AX and Pernod Ricard PERP.PA, which have faced delays getting through Chinese customs.

Despite Australian efforts to ease the curbs, wine is only trickling into the industry’s most lucrative market, expected to be worth more than A$1 billion ($735 million) this year.

Australian cattle graziers and citrus growers also fear they are being sidelined by China as a result of the row.

Reporting by Colin Packham