by Tarric Brooker
When many Americans think of Australia, things like white sandy beaches, kangaroos, and Steve Irwin come to mind – an image that is at times more of a caricature than an actual country.
Australia is rapidly finding out what all those business deals with China and the subsequent buying of its politicians really mean
What actually goes on in Australia, especially in its politics, is an unknown to most people not from the Land Down Under. It's usually not that well covered by the media, especially since the advent of Brexit and Donald Trump's presidency.
There is, however, an extremely dangerous trend in Australian politics that should concern lawmakers and political regulatory bodies across the democratic world. That's the foreign interference and strong-arming within Australia's political sphere.
Americans are most familiar with the foreign interference in the democratic process stemming from the allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. election of 2016. But in Australia, politicians at both a state and a federal level have been forced to resign after being caught in involvement with companies or individuals with ties to the Communist Party of China.
The Chinese influence in Australian politics is already very real, as the country relies heavily on China economically for its continued prosperity.
Australia managed to dodge the "Great Recession" largely as a result of Chinese domestic stimulus measures that boosted the Australian resources and mining sectors. The Chinese stimulus allowed Australia to not only avoid recession, but enjoy an economic boom while the rest of the world suffered through the global financial crisis. Since then, sectors of the Australian economy have become more and more dependent on Chinese consumers and capital.
In recent years, Australia has undergone a major apartment-building boom underpinned by Chinese investors purchasing the properties. The boom has become so large as a result that Australian cities have more large cranes working on construction projects than the United States, despite having less than 8% of the U.S. population. In addition to that, Australian universities have become increasingly reliant on Chinese students, with 31% of the 525,054 foreign students in the country coming from China.
Director of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Focus Group Michael Fay said: "[I]f anything happens to the Chinese market, such as with a downturn in the economy or problems with visas, Australia would be very exposed."
In essence, Australia is economically addicted to the capital and revenue Chinese consumers can provide, giving China incredible leverage over a country that has enjoyed economic prosperity without a recession for over 26 years.
China's growing influence in Australia has not gone unnoticed by diplomats and military planners in Washington.
In October 2015, the Chinese company Landbridge Group purchased a 99-year lease on the northern city of Darwin's port facilities, a sale that went through despite its alleged direct ties to the Chinese military. Darwin's port facilities are seen as instrumental to U.S. operations in the South Pacific, with U.S. Marines routinely being rotated through Australian bases in the area. This sale completely blindsided even the White House, with President Barack Obama saying to the Australian prime minister at the time that the United States would have liked a "heads up" before the sale of the port went through.
Australia's trade minister at the time of the sale, Andrew Robb, took an 880,000-Australian dollars-a-year job (that's $638,689 in U.S. dollars) at the company that purchased the port shortly after he retired from Parliament, leading to claims of a major conflict of interest.
Senator Sam Dastyari was forced to resign from his position in the shadow Cabinet after receiving funds from a Chinese-linked company to pay debts accrued to the Australian government. Dastyari also backed the Chinese government's refusal to abide by international court rulings on the South China Sea. He stated during a press conference: "The Chinese integrity of its borders is a matter for China." He added that "the best way of maintaining that relationship is knowing when it is and isn't our place to be involved."
This statement was a huge departure from the established bipartisan position of Australian political parties: that the South China Sea is in fact international waters.
Dastyari was finally forced to resign from Parliament after it came to light that he had warned Chinese businessman Mr. Huang Xiangmo that his phone was being tapped by U.S. agencies in a meeting in October of 2016.
The involvement of Mr. Huang Xiangmo in the Australian political scene doesn't end there. Opposition leader Bill Shorten visited Xiangmo at his home months after the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) had warned his party that Xiangmo had close ties to the Chinese Communist Party. Despite the controversy, the Australian Labor Party accepted A$141,000 in donations from companies linked to Xiangmo between 2015 and December 2017.
On the other side of Australian politics, the Australian Liberal and National Parties have also received a series of donations from companies linked to Xiangmo totaling A$138,000 between 2015 and December 2017. Some of these contributions went to prominent government figures including the Finance and Public Service minister, Mathias Cormann, whose campaign received A$20,000.
The reality for Australian policymakers and diplomats is that Australia is now inextricably linked to China economically; without Chinese capital and consumers, the economy would quickly nosedive, likely driving Australia into its first recession in over two decades.
Australia is effectively stuck in the classic carrot-and-stick situation. If Australia continues to sufficiently acquiesce to Chinese demands, then the flow of capital and consumers will continue uninterrupted, driving continued economic prosperity. Should the Australian government rock the boat, there are any number of ways the Chinese government could coerce Canberra back into line.
The Chinese government has already wielded boycotts to great effect in disputes with both Japan and South Korea, creating serious economic consequences for those nations, as Beijing used the spending power of its citizens in an attempt to force concessions.
Australia has become one of the front lines in the battle against foreign influence, as China increasingly wields greater political and economic influence over the island nation.
Australia may seem a world away from the United States, a relatively unimportant island in the South Pacific that looks like a nice place to have a vacation. But the reality is far more complex than that: Australia is arguably the linchpin of American military operations in the region.
The continued evolution of foreign influence on the Australian political landscape will echo around the world one way or another. Either Australia will become a bulwark against foreign interference or the situation will continue to deteriorate.
Tarric Brooker is a freelance journalist and political commentator. He also runs a political and current affairs website at avidcommentator.com.
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