Australia government gains new power to scrap foreign pacts

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The Australian Parliament on Tuesday gave the government power to cancel deals struck with foreign nations by lower levels of government that conflict with the national interest, despite China warning against disrupting cooperation.

An agreement signed by Australia’s second-most populous state, Victoria, with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative to build trade-related infrastructure is among 135 deals with 30 countries that the government argues need to be reviewed.

“We didn’t agree with it in the first place, still don’t agree with it, and no doubt decisions on that will be made in due course,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told reporters, referring to the Victoria deal.

The laws allow the federal government to review and scrap state, territory, local council and public university deals with other nations.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne can assess arrangements between governments or public universities and foreign governments to check if they align with foreign policy goals.

When the new federal power was proposed in August, the Chinese foreign ministry cautioned against disrupting “successful pragmatic cooperation” with Victoria.

“Australia should see two sides’ cooperation under the BRI in an objective and reasonable manner and not set obstacles artificially for normal exchanges and cooperation,” foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said in Beijing.

Bilateral relations have since deteriorated further, with Chinese officials announcing on Monday that Queensland state abattoir Meramist had become the sixth Australian meat exporter suspended from trading with China. No reasons were given.

China last month added wine to the growing list of Australian goods barred or restricted from its markets in a trade war against Australia over disputes including its support for a probe into the origin of the coronavirus.

Earlier, China stopped or reduced imports of Australian coal, barley, seafood, sugar and timber after Australia supported calls for a probe into the origin of the pandemic, which began in China late last year.

A diplomatic war of words recently erupted between Australia and China over a fake image that had been tweeted by a Chinese official.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison expressed indignation and anger at the tweet, which depicted a grinning Australian soldier holding a bloodied knife to an Afghan child’s throat.

The post took aim at alleged unlawful killings and abuses by Australian soldiers during the conflict in Afghanistan.

The Australian government created new powers to veto foreign deals as lawmakers become increasingly sensitive about Chinese political and economic influence.

In August, Australian regulators blocked a Chinese company’s purchase of Japanese brewer Kirin’s Australian beverage unit as “contrary to the national interest.”

In 2018, Australia passed sweeping national security laws that ban covert foreign interference in domestic politics. Beijing protested that the laws were prejudiced against China and poisoned Chinese-Australian relations.

Payne, the Australian foreign minister, said a task force would be created within her department to review international agreements under the new law.

“The legislation is necessary to appropriately manage and protect Australia’s foreign relations and the consistency or our nation’s foreign policy,” she said in a statement.

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