Canberra Passes Foreign Power (Read: China) Veto Bill

Latest in Australia-China spat . . . 

Australia’s parliament has passed the Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill 2020. The legislation, passed yesterday, gives the federal government the power to veto any agreement between Australian states, territories, local governments or institutions and a foreign government. The bill is seen by analysts as firmly directed at China and is expected to intensify the diplomatic row between the two countries. One of the motivations for the bill, as stated by the Australian Attorney-General during the Second Reading Speech, is to address the lack of visibility the federal government currently has on arrangements that states, territories, local governments, and related entities, including public universities, currently have or intend to have with foreign governments.

Autonomous institutions a thing of the past?

Under the new law, Australia’s foreign minister can veto any agreements which “adversely affect Australia’s foreign relations” or are “inconsistent with Australian foreign policy.” Critics of the bill both at home and in Beijing say it lacks clarity on key terms such as “foreign relations” and “foreign policy” and view it as harmful to the institutional autonomy of Australian universities. Ties between Canberra and Beijing have soured since Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year. Subsequently, China blocked major imports from Australia, such as lobsters and wine. Earlier this week, ties deteriorated further when a senior Chinese official posted a fake image of an Australian soldier on social media. Beijing has yet to apologize or delete the image.

Australia may be blunt, but is not alone . . .

Australia’s move to monitor and deny co-operative agreements between subnational stakeholders and Chinese institutions is getting considerable media attention and public push back in part for its alleged infringement on liberal democratic rights at home. But the Australian government is not alone in its push for greater clarity and control over the myriad Chinese connections within its borders. The United States, Europe, and Canada are all, in their respective ways, attempting to shed light on the nature of their domestic connections to China and whether these connections could pose a risk to national sovereignty.