Debate over Australia’s defense policy heated up as the defense minister said there was evidence the Chinese Communist Party wanted Australia’s government to change in the May 21 election because a center-left Labor Party administration would try to appease to Beijing.
Defense Minister Peter Dutton said on Thursday the evidence included communication on the Chinese social media platform WeChat and how Chinese-language newspaper publishers in Australia had been pressured.
There were also “other items, obviously, that I can’t speak to publicly,” Dutton said in an apparent reference to classified security briefings.
Dutton made his claim of a Chinese preference for Labor in response to a reporter’s question during a defense policy debate at the National Press Club with opposition defense spokesman Brendan O’Connor.
“I have no doubt that the Chinese Communist Party would like to see a change of government in the elections on May 21. There is no question at all,” Dutton said.
O’Connor said he disagreed with what he described as Dutton’s “conspiracy theory.”
“This country has no interest in one political party attacking another major political party in order to appease China, particularly when it’s not true,” O’Connor said.
The Chinese embassy in Canberra did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
A year after the Conservative government was first elected in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Australia and addressed Parliament. Bilateral relations have soured dramatically since then. Chinese government ministers will not speak to their Australian counterparts and China has imposed a series of formal and informal trade sanctions on Australian exports.
Dutton said Senator Penny Wong, who would become the Labor Party’s foreign minister, would want to roll back the last nine years of Australia’s Conservative government’s actions towards China.
“Penny Wong thinks she can go to Beijing on a charm offensive and could change the direction of China under President Xi,” Dutton said.
Wong’s office declined to comment Thursday.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Liberal Party-led conservative coalition has been campaigning as the lawmakers most likely to face Chinese coercion.
A conservative lobby group, Advance Australia, has been displaying advertisements on the sides of trucks depicting Xi voting Labor.
Home Secretary Karen Andrews suggested last week that China’s announcement of a security pact with the Solomon Islands was deliberately timed to undermine her Liberal Party’s re-election prospects.
O’Connor on Thursday quoted Dennis Richardson, a former head of the Defense Department, the Foreign Department and the nation’s top spy agency, who warned against fabricating political differences over China.
“The government seeks to create the perception of a difference between itself and the opposition on a critical issue of national security, which is China; seeking to create the perception of a difference when in practice there is none,” Richardson said in February.
“That is not in the national interest. That only serves the interests of one country and that is China,” Richardson added.