A law that would allow Canberra to cancel deals between local governments and foreign nations is not directed at China, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has claimed, amid a growing political and economic rift with Beijing.
The proposed legislation would give the federal government the authority to suspend any agreements that local authorities and public institutions make with foreign states. If approved, the law could also be applied retroactively to dozens of such deals already on the books.
The bill comes as Australia and China quarrel over a growing list of economic and political disputes, but Morrison has insisted that Beijing is not in Canberra’s crosshairs.
“These laws are about Australia’s national sovereign interests,” Morrison said on Thursday. The pending new powers would grant the prime minister the ability to cancel any agreement which “adversely affects Australia’s foreign relations” or is found to be “inconsistent with Australian foreign policy.”
Australian entities have inked 130 agreements with 30 different countries that would be subject to review, according to Morrison. Several of the most controversial of these deals involve China.
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In 2015, the Northern Territory government granted a lease of the Port of Darwin to a Chinese-owned firm, and signed off on large agricultural land acquisitions.
More recently, in 2018, the state of Victoria signed on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a decision heavily criticized by Canberra at the time.
China is Australia’s largest export market, but the two countries have had a falling out after Canberra called for an international inquiry into the origin of Covid-19. The Australian government has also taken steps to block Chinese firms from investing in the country.
On Wednesday, a top Chinese diplomat dismissed Australia’s concerns about Beijing’s influence as “constitutional fragility and intellectual vulnerability” and called on Canberra to ensure the fair treatment of Chinese companies.
Beijing last week launched an investigation into Australian wine imports. China has also imposed tariffs on Australian barley and urged students and tourists to avoid Australia, citing alleged racial discrimination.
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