Malcolm Turnbull has confirmed tension between Australia and China has ramped up after the foreign interference crackdown.
But a former Labor foreign affairs minister, Bob Carr, who’s the director of the China-Australia relationships institute at the University of Technology Sydney, said Australia would be wrong to think its legislation was to blame, and instead pointed the finger at “flamboyant anti-China rhetoric” from political leaders.
The prime minister was asked if Australian ministers were having trouble getting visas to China, and he told radio 3AW he was “very confident any misunderstandings will be resolved”.
“I can’t – I wouldn’t say they have been declined. I have to be careful and precise about that,” Turnbull said.
“I want to say we have a very good relationship with China. I regularly correspond with Chinese leaders – both the premier, Li Keqiang, and the president, Xi Jinping – but it is very – but the relationship is very deep and extensive. But from time to time there are differences in perception.”
Speaking to Guardian Australia, Carr suggested reflection was in order.
“If there is a freeze on visas from China, it is not in response to the anti-espionage, foreign interference legislation introduction in December. All countries … are entitled to such measures and China is realistic, it recognises that,” he said.
“If there is a freeze, it is a response to the sometimes flamboyant anti-China rhetoric which has been adopted by Australia since early last year.
“Australia has become, rhetorically, the most adamant anti-Chinese of all American allies. Not even Shinzo Abe of Japan has gone further than Australia in rhetorical combat.”
Pointing to comments from then deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, who in early 2017 claimed China had the capacity to “overrun” Australia, and comments made by Turnbull during the Bennelong byelection, Carr said it would not be surprising if China had decided to retaliate.
“It is almost as if we are inviting a response from Beijing,” he said.
The Australian Financial Review reported the annual Australian trade and business expo looked set to be cancelled this year in response to the rising tensions, while government ministers were finding their visa requests denied.
Turnbull blamed Chinese media for what he called a “misunderstanding”.
“I’ve seen the reports and all I would say is there clearly has been some misunderstandings and mischaracterisations of our foreign interference legislation in the Chinese media,” he said.
“I just want to say we have a very strong and respectful relationship and like every nation, we ensure, do everything we can to ensure, that our politics, that any foreign interference in our politics is open and declared, we don’t accept foreign interference in our politics and that is not directed at any one nation, and the most obvious example around the world right now, is Russia.”
Asked a third time if Australian ministers were being denied visas, Turnbull sighed.
“I want to be precise about this. I would say there has been a, there is certainly some tension, there has been a degree of tension in the relationship that has risen because of criticism in China because of our foreign interference laws, but it is very important that the Australian government ensures that only Australians are influencing their political processes and where foreigners seek to do so, they do it openly and transparently.”
The legislative net the government plans on casting spreads further than China, but was lobbed in response to former Labor senator Sam Dastyari’s relationship with a Chinese donor, which ultimately led to his resignation.
Earlier this year he called for a more balanced China strategy, “not one which begins to wave the flag of neo-McCarthyism in this country against the Chinese community that live here”.
The Labor leader, Bill Shorten, asked for clarification over whether any Australian ministers had had their visas refused, but acknowledged Australia’s relationship with China had, historically, been bumpy.
“In the past, the relationship with China has had more turbulence than you might want to say, but China is a very important part of Australia’s future,” he said.
This week there have been reports China is looking to establish a military base on the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, which both the government and opposition have raised concerns about.
China has spent the past decade implementing its new foreign direction as it enjoys the fruits of an economic boon, while its authoritarian government looks to open doors to the international community.
Those familiar with the Chinese-Australian relationship at both a business and political level told Guardian Australia the nation’s leaders needed to pay more attention to what China was saying as it laid out its plans, and urged a more “thoughtful and considered” engagement with the emerging world power.
Turnbull’s plans to visit China later this year are reportedly still on track, although no date has yet been set.
The Chinese embassy has been contacted for comment.