Foreign university students are no longer able to serve as interns in the offices of Australian Members of Parliament as fears of espionage grow.
The Australian National University arranges internships in Canberra, which it accepts as credit toward its courses. However, recent complaints about the level of access enjoyed by Chinese students has resulted in the turning away of all foreign students from now on.
Part of the problem stems from growing concerns about China interfering with Australian domestic affairs and politics on university campuses.
MPs can take foreign interns and work experience candidates on an informal basis but not through university placements. Australia is a highly regarded destination for international students, and in April, over 500,000 of them took courses at Australian institutions, with about 30% being from China.
The move to ban foreign students comes as Australian intelligence agencies advised that mobile phone company Huawei Technologies should be banned from supplying components for Australia’s upcoming 5G network due to espionage fears.
Another factor in the decision to ban foreign students was President of the Senate Scott Ryan and Speaker of Australia’s House of Representatives Tony Smith receiving complaints from MPs that Beijing could recruit Chinese students to take advantage of their positions as interns.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute Defense Analyst Malcolm Davis said that foreigners should not gain access to any operations within the Australian Government. He commented to the Australian Financial Review: “Why should we allow foreign nationals to have access to sensitive material, potentially classified material in Parliament House?”
More safeguards against espionage are now in place. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently backed the government’s move to ban foreign political donations and create a register of political lobbyists from abroad.
Turnbull raised other concerns about China and the possibility of espionage last year when an opposition MP resigned after accepting a wealthy Chinese businessman’s donations before taking a pro-China position on a tense situation in the South China Sea.
China’s efforts to expand its reach in the South Pacific has also been a concern for Australia, and this week, Turnbull made another move designed to block Huawei from developing a project in the area. He signed an agreement with Soloman Islands and Papua New Guinea leaders to put in an undersea cable between the three countries. There are also reports that later this year, Australia and New Zealand will be joining a security pact with island nations in the South Pacific.
These events have prompted a response from China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper that warned Australia and New Zealand to “avoid misleading the region on China’s role.”
Last week, there were reports that Chinese hackers compromised the Australian National University’s computer system in 2017.